Death at the Museum: (or reflections on a tour through Hobart’s MONA)

“Fragile men depicting themselves as masters of the universe… isn’t that what we all do. I think so.”  — James Brett, Museum of Everything Curator, MONA Exhibition, describing the room featuring these guns and a few other men imagining the glories of war from the sidelines.

We went to Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) yesterday; and I was reminded that I have a love-hate relationship with modern art. I can appreciate some of the playfulness, and the imagination. I can celebrate the integration of technology and a narrative. I can enjoy, even, the task of determining ‘does the emperor have clothes on’ at each twist and turn through a carefully curated modern art gallery. But I find modern art, typically, so stifling. So caught up in the ‘here and now’ of our existence; so lacking the ‘backcloth’ of certain belief in something beyond us (to borrow a C.S Lewis metaphor from The Discarded Image). The best modern art is, as philosopher Charles Taylor would put it, ‘haunted’ by the loss of something beyond here and now; the loss of something infinite or transcendent beyond space and time as we experience it.

Whatever art, is, or whatever art does, as we experience it, it both helps us see the world and reflects the world as we see it; if we’re in this sort of frame of reference where there’s nothing beyond the here and now then our art helps us to grapple with that reality as it, itself, grapples with that reality. And if the here and now is all there is, then you might expect modern art to both show us, and help us see, what is important in this sort of world, or it might function as something like the opiate of the masses, distracting us from the utter finitude of our existence.

Mona is a privately owned museum; the hobby of David Walsh, a guy who got super rich as a professional gambler. MONA’s website describes the museum as:

“Mona is one man’s ‘megaphone’ as he put it at the outset: and what he wants to say almost invariably revolves around the place of art and creativity within the definition of humanity. We know that sounds lofty, self-important. But we must be honest with you: our goal is no more, nor less, than to ask what art is, and what makes us look and look at it with ceaseless curiosity.”

One man’s megaphone.

One man with a certain sort of curiousity, but also a certain sort of outlook on the world. One way to make art communicate a certain vision of the world, if you’re not going to make it, is to curate it. And Walsh set out with a particular communication agenda that continues to dominate the Mona experience. Ten years ago, before the museum opened, he told an interviewer there’d be two overarching themes to the gallery: sex, and death.

“The pursuit of sex and the avoidance of death are, according to Walsh, the two most fundamental human motives. All ancient art expresses the need for one or fear of the other, he says, and these themes remain common in contemporary Western art.”

There are also plenty of bars, where you can enjoy a drink. Sex, death, and partying. These are the things that occupy our hearts and minds if this life is all there is. In the materialist account of life (and Walsh is an atheist) then these evolutionary impulses are undirected by anything beyond our own sometimes inexplicable internal urges; and perhaps this is where Walsh is probing with his curatorial curiosity; or his exploration into what art is, and how art and creativity work within our humanity; maybe he’s trying to explain why we have these urges at all, why not some other things? He writes frequently (on his blog, and in Mona published books) about the relationship between evolution and art; art that explores these constant themes.

“We think art is useful by definition—useful, in a deep biological sense. We think that it has played a part in the perpetuation of the species (and maybe, then, it has a lot to answer for).” — Mona Introduction

These words have been bouncing around in my head all day, since our walk through the gallery…

“Fragile men depicting themselves as masters of the universe… isn’t that what we all do. I think so.”

This quote, from the Museum of Everything exhibition, from a room that came in the course of a journey through the ‘interior life’ of humanity resonated with me. I posted the quote on instagram with the picture above, because it does ring true. This particular room stayed with me; it opened with a series of paintings of battle scenes from a man deemed too frail to go to war, fringed by self portrait photographs of a man holding a series of invented weapons depicting himself as a war hero; a man telling a story of war away from the frontlines, with himself as the hero. The exhibition’s curator, James Brett described the appeal of this room so sublimely; ‘fragile men depicting themselves as masters of the universe’ — and there is a universality of this posturing, especially now that we have a ‘material’ world, where we have no God, or gods, to master us. It’s true not just of the men featured in the room, or of a general human experience in the world where the ‘here and now’ is all we have, and ‘leaders’ like Trump and Kim Jong Un seem to play this out writ large… it rings true of Walsh himself, and his museum-as-megaphone, or ‘museum-as-weapon.’

Mona is a striking and at times confronting exploration of Walsh’s twin themes; the pursuit of the ‘good life’ in the face of death; good life with no hope of life beyond death. But there’s nothing new about his particular understanding of the good life… sex, death, and drinks at the bar at the end of the world — or the ‘Void bar’…

“We believe things like art history and the individual artist’s intention are interesting and important—but only alongside other voices and approaches that remind us that art, after all, is made and consumed by real, complex people—whose motives mostly are obscure, even to themselves.

That, and we want you to have fun. Settle in at the Void Bar. Have a drink.” — Mona Introduction

Sex. Drinking. Death.

There’s nothing new about this approach to life if there’s nothing more out there… When Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth back in the first century AD, he suggests this is basically a description of life in Corinth; that our impending mortality leaves most of us with a bucket list that looks a lot like ‘have as much sex and fun as you can’ to stave off death, or at least live in some sort of denial, to, as Walsh put it when setting out, live life around the “pursuit of sex and the avoidance of death.”

Paul says the religious practices of the city of Corinth looked a lot like this (‘rose up to play’ is a euphemism, by the way, for the sex that happened at ‘religious’ and private dinner parties).

“The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” — 1 Corinthians 10:7

The catch is; Paul isn’t just talking about the city of Corinth here, he’s actually quoting directly from the Old Testament; for as long as people were recording the texts that were curated into the Bible as a story of our humanity, people were dealing with life in this world by pursuing sex and drink.  Paul even says that’s the logical thing to do, if the whole God thing isn’t real and story of the Bible isn’t true. He says:

“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” — 1 Corinthians 15:32

Again, he’s quoting the Old Testament here… but also just describing how we should approach life if the here and now is all there is… And that’s why I have a love-hate relationship with modern art, and why I can appreciate what David Walsh is trying to do with his megaphone; at the very least he’s trying to give humanity a wake up call to stop us destroying each other and the planet and to start enjoying what time we have.

But I find his megaphone depressing.

I find the idea of life presented by Mona, by modern art, and by the belief that the here and now is all there is of little comfort in the face of death. I read Walsh’s blog posts and feel a weight of sorrow, and mostly a sense of hopelessness. If the evolutionary story is all there is, then it leaves me ill equipped to touch the void; and not even a drink from the bar will numb that sense of loss of something bigger. Being left with ‘tomorrow we die’ is being left with not much at all.

Walsh writes a lot about death; there were these two particularly poignant pieces on the Mona blog, where he’s often explicitly dealing with the death of people he loves, and his own mortality. Here’s a response to being questioned about whether or not he fears death:

“I fear dying, as my biological nature compels me to, but that I contrive, through my evolution-given capacity to reason my way through my world, to see it as an undesirable side effect of the astonishing good fortune of having been born in the first place.” — Springs Eternal, David Walsh, MONA blog

He goes on to talk about the vast improbability of existence in an infinite universe (elsewhere he seems to be a proponent of the multiverse theory of infinite universes). Then, in another piece, he shares the lyrics of a song he wrote pondering the deaths of his friends Donna and Mark, a poem he asked Sting to set to music (there’s a link to the song there). Here are some of the verses from the end of a piece titled ‘O Death Where Is Thy Sting (a reference to a passage in 1 Corinthians 15, just after the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ bit, but prompted, obviously, by Sting’s name). It’s an ode to our mortality.

Jesus Christ was crucified
I wasn’t there when he died
But I believe it’s mostly true
Maybe he didn’t die that way
But he is not around today
Because he was mortal just like you.

But still we worry
Still we resolve
To not die young
But to not get old
To wake up tomorrow
Same as today
To feel some sorrow
Then go on our way
And all we can say for Donna and Mark
They saw the light but can’t see in the dark.

But…
For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

But Donna’s still dead,
And briefly I’ll think about her
Sing a song of a world without her.
And then, instead
Her death will serve as a reminder
That I’m not too far behind her. — David Walsh, O Death Where Is Thy Sting, MONA blog

Death gets us all. That’s his message. Dark triumphs over light. That’s his message. The darkness of death will swallow all of us.

There is little comfort here; certainly nothing like the comfort offered by belief in the resurrection. If his megaphone is being used to proclaim such emptiness then the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ — or the more classically Aussie: ‘drink and have sex,’ life is a gamble — message is of cold comfort. Those things aren’t paradoxically held in tension with death; the reality of death obliterates them. You can’t do what Walsh hoped Mona would do via art — avoid death — if death will swallow us all.

Ultimately modern art with its obsession with the here and now, material world, being all there is just confronts us with the impending reality of our death; it’s either subtle, hovering in the background somewhere, or as overt as the ‘death room’ at Mona with its MRI scanned sarcophagus. Yes. Mona is at least honest enough to confront us with the reality of death and the grave; but then to simply invite us to eat, drink, and be merry, in response.

But Paul tells a better story; and his song, recorded almost 2,000 years ago, removes the ‘sting’… Because ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ is not his first word, or the final word… it’s the  back up plan; it’s what you do if there is no God, and if this stuff isn’t truer and more beautiful.

And there is a God.

And there is a better story.

We don’t want darkness to destroy light; or death to destroy life; or to be the next in the queue. We do want to avoid death. Because ultimately that’s what being human is all about — participating in God’s story. A story where death is the enemy, where God is light and life.

The story of the Bible explains life to us better than art (and has been the subject of so much art that confronts us with this right up to the modern era). It tells us that life beats death; that light eviscerates darkness, and that meaning is found not by confronting our mortality, but by experiencing resurrection. We can confront death without fear; and our art and stories — the works of our hands — and our lives themselves can point to something higher and grander than the here and now (or help us see the here and now in a new light). If life is a gamble; go all in here.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. — 1 Corinthians 15:54-58

 This changes everything.

A tale of two epitaphs: The haunting of Port Arthur tells a bigger Australian story than it seeks to…

We’re on holidays in Tasmania. It’s stunning. We’ve been to snow fringed lakes, and stunning bays, and we’re now enjoying historic Hobart. Yesterday, en route to Hobart, we spent some time in Port Arthur at the world heritage listed historic site that is the best preserved remnant of Australia’s convict history; it was a prison settlement, and like most historical sites the place itself, and its architecture, tells a story that functions as a backdrop to the stories of lives lived and lost in our nation’s past.

Port Arthur’s historical site, of course, occupies a more recent place in the Australian story and our national psyche. In 1996 it was the site of Australia’s last shooting massacre, when a young man named Martin Bryant entered the historic site and sprayed staff and visitors with bullets, taking 35 lives and leaving 23 people wounded. This shooting led to a significant change to Australia’s gun laws, and left an indelible mark on the historic site; where there’s now a moving tribute to those who were killed or wounded in the massacre, and to those brave people who rushed to the aid of the victims. It’s a solemn monument to a significant moment in our national story.

What fascinated me more than the conditions of the prisoners, government officers, and settlers in the historic site was the prominent space given to Christianity in the lives of both the convicts and the establishment. The church that met on the hill above the settlement hosted services attended by 1,100 people per Sunday. The building that hosted these gatherings was, from 1836, a grand, convict-built, sandstone structure in prime position on the hill; a prominent and unmissable reminder of the place of Christianity in the lives (and attempted reform) of those sent to the colony, a constant visible presence reminding those living in the community of the inherent dignity and value of all human life; a reminder it appears at least some of those in charge of life in the prisons took on board (according to the records quoted in signage on the site).

The parsonage — the home of the protestant minister who ran services at the church — made for interesting visiting and reading. It told the story of three of the chaplains to the community — the first, Rev Durham, was staunchly anti-Catholic, but also advocated for better treatment of prisoners, and for the church to be responsible for education in the community, and a letter from one of the convicts claimed that he’d won the respect of those he was sent to minister to — the convicts. The second chaplain, Reverend George Eastman, had a classic minister’s family, with kids who apparently ran amok, disrupting all sorts of things happening around the community; he too was held in high esteem in the community, but he died on site, and one of the signs in the parsonage particularly struck me, it quotes his epitaph. The words on his grave stone seemed to me to be great words for a preacher of the Gospel to aspire to, but also told the story of the role of the church in a settlement where death was common, and the church did indeed play a prominent role in helping us face our mortality; or rather to offer hope beyond death. The Port Arthur site includes a small island in the bay, the Isle of the Dead, which functioned as the cemetery.

“Long and earnestly the pastor laboured to bring souls to Christ, and oft on his calm isle proclaimed to mourning groups the Christian’s cheering hope. The joyful resurrection morn and Glorious immortality. He being dead yet speaketh. Hebrew X1.4” — Rev. George Eastman’s epitaph.

What stunning words. This man’s ministry to others in the face of death spoke from beyond the grave. A good kind of haunting. The kind that leads to hope; a testimony to glorious immortality for any who put their faith in Jesus. The best we Christians have to offer society; and perhaps the reason the church was so prominent in the early life of this settlement, and other parts of colonial Australia. The Hebrews quote is from a chapter of the Bible that speaks of faith.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. — Hebrews 11:1-4

What a testimony to this man’s ministry and the place of the church in the colony. To a church operating as a city on a hill; a light in the darkness; a voice of hope beyond death. A position reinforced by the environment; a story told by this historic site.

But the story doesn’t end there… because the story of Port Arthur’s historic site is a haunting one; and perhaps more than anything else it is haunted by the loss of a voice like this, or a church like this. And perhaps here there is something of the story of our nation; a parallel haunting story.

The pastor who replaced Rev. Eastman, Rev Haywood, arrived to a settlement in decline; the prison was closing, and to top things off, he started to believe that the parsonage was haunted by ghosts; perhaps Eastman’s. He moved out of the house, then left the settlement in 1877 when the prison closed. The parsonage became the post office. Christianity was moving away from the centre of the community. 7 years later the church building caught fire, just the outer walls remain; a haunting but powerful monument to the place of religion in a site littered with buildings in similar state of disrepair; none are quite so grandly designed or constructed as this building though.

Next to the old church is a much smaller chapel style building, St Davids, which still functions as an Anglican church to this day. When it was commissioned in 1927, the local paper wrote: it’s “a pretty little building, erected in a prominent position in the township in the shadows of the ruins of the old church. It is a welcome addition to the buildings of the township” (the page of the paper available at that link has an interesting little report on a church service at Davey Street Methodist where the address was given by miss Barbara Storey — which tells two fascinating stories about the church in 1927, one being that sermons were summarised in the city’s newspaper, the other being about women preaching not being particularly newsworthy). Prior to the construction of St David’s (in the 50 year gap between 1877 and 1927) services had been conducted in Port Arthur’s town hall, the old Asylum. Now this quaint little building runs regular services in the shadow of a grand, but skeletal, church building that was the town’s most prominent structure; it looks like it could comfortably seat 40 people; it’s a haunting story about the place of the church in Australia; but not the only part of the site that tells this haunting story. Where once there was a grand building, serving 1,100 people per Sunday with the hope of the resurrection, and helping people confront death, now there is this quaint building — that once made the newspaper — providing a handful of tourists, and perhaps some locals, that same message.

The church still has a place in Port Arthur, it’s still kicking along, but it is part of an historic site; a tourist attraction, a relic of an Australia past; representing something every bit as ghostly as the other stories of the past you’re confronted with in your walk around the site, and offering something about as plausible to the average Aussie punter as Rev. Haywood’s ghost sightings.

This wasn’t the most haunting part of our tour of Port Arthur for me. I’m more into ancient history and recent history than the history of colonial Australia; and I can remember exactly where I was, as a 13 year old kid, when I first learned about the Port Arthur shooting. It was a Sunday. I was at youth group, sitting on the stage steps inside the Presbyterian Church building in Maclean, and some of my friends were talking about it. It’s one of those news stories where you remember where you first hear it… It left an indelible mark on my memory; a haunting. Even.

The memorial garden and ‘Pool of Peace’ are a stirring reminder of this moment in our history; I saw a bloke probably a couple of years older than me, sitting quietly and contemplatively on the corner of the pool for a few minutes, perhaps, as I was, pondering the fragility of human life; being confronted by the spectre of death; haunted, still, by the events of 21 years ago. It’s hard to know what to say in response to death, which is why our mortality and the fragility of life is confronting, perhaps it is why the original settlement buried its dead on an island, a boat trip away from the day to day reality; the water providing a buffer between the mundane and its inevitable end; with the church and the ministry of somebody like Rev. Eastman helping to bridge that gap, and providing the comforting picture of “glorious immortality” — the early settlers seemed to grasp that being confronted by death without being comforted by immortality is something more than haunting; more than ghostly; it is ghastly.

But the memorial, in the main, reminds us of the haunting Aussie story; what we’ve lost because we’ve lost the prominent place of people like Rev. Eastman, and the church has gone from being a prominent visual part of life in our community, to having a small presence in the shadows. So. The ‘Pool of Peace’ offers a thoroughly secular response to the events of 1996; haunting words engraved next to the pool and on its edges, another epitaph, in stark contrast to the words on Eastman’s gravestone:

“Death has taken its toll

Some pain knows no release

But the knowledge of brave compassion

Shines like a pool of peace.

May we who come to this garden

Cherish life for the sake of those who died

Cherish compassion for the sake of those who gave aid

Cherish peace for the sake of those in pain.”

These are poetic words. They aren’t without a sort of limited hope, and in some ways they are words that allow the victims of Port Arthur to do what Rev. Eastman does; to keep speaking; to speak of the cost of evil, and the pain and grief that comes through death. You can’t help but be moved by that garden, these words, and the still waters of the pool; tucked into a part of a site that tells a bigger story of Australian life.

Somehow Eastman’s testimony, his epitaph, stands in stark relief to these words though, and somehow this is where the church might still have a role to play in Australia, even if it is to keep us feeling haunted by ghosts of a past we’ve lost, a place we once had… with a message of ‘cheering hope’ that comforts us in our own ‘isle of the dead’, that comforts us as we stand beside graves, or on sites where death has touched us, or haunted us.

“Long and earnestly the pastor laboured to bring souls to Christ, and oft on his calm isle proclaimed to mourning groups the Christian’s cheering hope. The joyful resurrection morn and Glorious immortality. He being dead yet speaketh. Hebrew X1.4” — Rev. George Eastman’s epitaph.

The church is not yet dead; even if it is starting to feel like a bit of a ghost story, or something that haunts our society rather than comforts it. And there’s a small monument to this in the memorial garden too; and perhaps the brightest moment of our trip came from this monument, this sculpture of the cross with the names of those who lost their lives engraved on a plaque, tucked back in the shadows; behind the ‘pool of peace’; a reminder of the prince of peace, the one whose resurrection secures our glorious immortality; the one who spoke life in the beginning, but who also spoke from beyond the grave.

As we rounded the corner, through a tall hedge, into the monument, there were a couple of kids playing underneath this cross. One, a young girl, stretched out her arms and yelled out, breaking the stillness — her voice rippling across the pool — “Mummy! Mummy! I’m dying on the cross like Jesus”… the man sitting peacefully on the edge of the pool looked up, shocked at this breach of the peace, the girl’s mum hushed her, and beckoned her back to her side.

I smiled. I couldn’t help myself. As I caught the eyes of the sombre fountain sitter. He wasn’t smiling, though his eyes were, a little. As we walked up to the inscriptions on the edge of the pool, I heard this girl explaining the Jesus story to her sister. “They killed Jesus on a cross like that, then they put him in a tomb… and then…”

And then.

Haunting.

Cheering hope. Resurrection. Glorious immortality. He being living yet speaketh.

Even in Australia.

How I had my say while abstaining (or the letter I sent my MP, and our parliamentary leaders)

I’ve had quite a few people objecting to my expressed intent to abstain in the postal survey on same sex marriage on the basis that it is ‘deciding not to participate’ in the democratic process; I don’t believe participation in a democracy is reduced to simply casting one’s vote (as most of my posts on interacting with the government on social issues, and on elections should indicate). So here’s the letter I’ve sent to my local MP, and to the leaders of the government and opposition; I’m not convinced they’ll read it, but I am convinced it is every bit as democratic as ticking either box on a voluntary postal survey, or not ticking either (and I’m personally convinced it’s more democratic even if it isn’t read, or isn’t read in full, especially if other citizens read it and ponder its value).


To the Hon Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull MP;

CC the Opposition Leader, Hon Bill Shorten MP;

CC the Member for Bonner, Ross Vasta MP;

Re: The same sex marriage postal survey and my decision to abstain,

There are those who would interpret the participation rate in the voluntary same sex marriage postal survey as a sign that those who do not cast a vote for yes, or for no, have decided not to participate or to exercise their democratic rights in this discussion; that we do not care about the issue or the process.

I write to explain my own abstaining, and perhaps that of other citizens, to indicate that it is not a lack of participation in democracy that led me to abstain, but rather a desire to participate in a purer and nobler form of liberal democracy; one more consistent with our Westminster system.

I write to tell you that I did not vote because I believe that this decision should be made by those appointed to be lawmakers. I did not vote because I believe the best and noblest part of a liberal democracy is lawmakers who balance the interests of a broad constituency; who do not impose the will of a majority on a minority via a blunt instrument (like a popular vote), who don’t govern according to the polls, but who govern for all and seek compromises that allow communities to live together in difference. I believe something more than a yes/no binary, something with more imagination, might have been possible in this instance, but also that a truly secular democratic solution would enshrine the freedoms of different members of our civil society, who belong to communities of identity within that broad society, to disagree with one another and strive towards true tolerance. I did not vote because I do not believe ‘majority rules’ is the philosophy at the heart of democracy, but the nobler view that all people have dignity and should be treated with equality, whether the majority wills it or not. I imagined a plebiscite, or postal survey, deciding something about my freedom to live according to my beliefs in a secular, liberal, democracy and could not bring myself to participate because of Jesus’ teaching that I should ‘treat others how I would have them treat me.’

As a Christian, I believe that the flourishing life is found in the teachings of Jesus, and so I humbly submit to his definition of marriage, contained in the Gospels and taught by churches for almost 2,000 years (and practiced in Israel before that). I believe that marriage is a sacred, God-designed, relationship that reflects God’s great unifying love for humanity; and that there is a coherence to the Bible’s treatment of marriage and gender. Religious freedom is not simply about my ability to conduct marriages according to this view as a member of the ‘institutional church,’ but that church itself is an identity-forming community for many of its members; that those members also hold this view in their own lives and as they participate in our democracy; this is true also for members of other religions that have particular views on marriage. However, I recognise that my views are formed by my particular religious beliefs, and that in a secular state they should be accommodated alongside the views of my neighbours, including my LGBTIQA neighbours, and so the task of forging a way forward is one that requires wisdom and compromise; a task best left to those whose job it is to lead our nation, rather than thrust into the hands of uncompromising masses from either side. I’ve watched enough of the debate around the postal survey to have no doubt that this decision has had deleterious effects on the community at large.

I write in order for my voice to be heard and counted; and in a form of humble but prayerful rebuke, and a prayer that you will discharge your duties with more courage and conviction.

The Bible tells Christians that our governing authorities are placed in their position by God, and that we Christian citizens, though ‘citizens of heaven’ who follow Jesus as king, are to honour you and prayerfully petition you that we might live at peace in this world; free to live lives of love and sacrifice for our neighbours, especially those the powerful would marginalise. There is a long and rich tradition in western democracies of the church speaking up for the voiceless, and it is to our shame that often the voice of the church is indistinguishable from those who speak in self-interest, from positions of power. The best of this tradition sees your task as a noble and complicated one; a task requiring virtue and character, and a task caught up in the exercise of wisdom. It is this wisdom that seems to be the object of the prayers believers are urged to make for you and your fellow parliamentarians; in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul says of the Roman authorities that they are ‘God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.’ Governing is a noble task; a vocation; a call to be leaders of character who exercise wisdom for the sake of the good of all those whose lives are subject to your leadership and authority. Paul also says, in his letter to Timothy, that our submission to government must be coupled with us living good lives, and that somehow our prayerful petitions should be that we might freely live those good and different lives in this world. The three passages in the New Testament that speak of the church’s relationship to governing authorities see your task as one given by God, our task as being to live lives of goodness and love, and the result being a form of religious freedom (Romans 13, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Peter 2).

My prayer for you is that in the coming days, and years, you might live up to your noble task; that you might govern our country with wisdom, balancing the freedoms and desires of the different communities you govern for, and that we Christians might get back to the business of living good lives, and loving our neighbours so that they, and you, might see the goodness, beauty and love of Jesus in us. This is why I have abstained from voting in the plebiscite, in the hope that by failing to take hold of this power you offered me, you might take hold of the power given to you by God, and the nation of Australia.

In Jesus name,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia

Why I’m a generous pluralist, not a pluralist by pragmatism (or a pragmatist), and why we should be ready for a diet of worms

Nobody likes me everybody hates me
I think I’ll go eat worms
Long ones, short ones, fat ones skinny ones,
Ones that squiggle and squirm
Bite their heads off suck their guts out throw their skins away
Nobody knows that I eat worms, 3 times a day — A song I used to sing as a kid


Image: WWE’s old worm-eating character, The Boogeyman

 

Stephen McAlpine is always worth reading even though he’s a little older, grumpier and more pessimistic than I am. I like him a lot. In his most recent post asking where the progressive Christian voices speaking about religious freedom are he has a dig at those who write blog posts spruiking ‘a confident pluralism’… I’m reasonably sure he’s not talking about me. But just in case others are drawing a link, I thought I’d spell out what my motivations for generous pluralism are; that it’s not that I expect (necessarily) we’ll get a better deal from those who disagree with us, but rather that it is the right position for us to adopt.

“I read blog posts which predict a confident pluralism in Australia which will only target extreme homophobia, as if the recent brittle pluralism on this matter (Coopers anyone?) is merely an anomaly, a blip on the radar that will magically correct itself with the objective is achieved.”

Just to be clear this is not my prediction; but also to be clear, my diagnosis of most conservative Christian responses to same sex marriage here and abroad is that the loudest voices have not practiced a confident pluralism but a zero sum game (and to be charitable to John Inazu who coined the ‘confident’ qualifier for pluralism, or at least trademarked it, his confidence, like Stephen McAlpine’s is largely eschatological and theological, not political).

The snowball that started the Stephen McAlpine internet juggernaut; of which I am a fan; was his series of posts on life in exile. He concluded we’re not in Athens but Babylon, my response was to suggest that the distinction between Athens, Babylon, and Rome is probably not one that Revelation makes — we’re still in Rome, and the question is ‘how should the church operate when in Rome?’ We should consider ourselves operating in the world that crucified Jesus, despite thousands of years of the church influencing western culture.

My paradigm is not one of navigating the easiest road for the church in these times; but making sure we’re being crucified for following Jesus (doing the right thing), rather than for using ‘the sword’ to try to make other people follow Jesus (the culture wars/modern crusades/wrong thing). If you’re seeing something other than cruciformity driving my agenda I’d invite you to first try to understand my words through that lens, and if you still can’t see it, to call me out.

The Babylonian metaphor Stephen often uses (most recently in his cracking post on Israel Folau) is a useful one, provided we see Babylonian exile as involving powerful counter-narratives about humanity that go a long way beyond sex, and sexual ethics as the last thing the church is being called to give up, not the first. Like Stephen, and others, I see Daniel as a powerful motiff or model for how to respond to life in Babylon, but I see Jesus operating in the Roman empire as a subversive alternative (and victorious) king who wins through crucifixion as an even better model (and Daniel as a ‘type’ of Jesus). Like Stephen my confidence is eschatological, not political. Like Stephen, my solution to this diagnosis is that the church should be the church; and so when I pursue a confident pluralism and generously engage with some of the more aggressive members of the homosexual campaign against religious freedom being exercised I’m not doing it to silence the Christians they are silencing (though I do wish those Christians would practice pluralism), I’m not doing it to secure an easier run from the world, I’m doing it to model an alternative — that I’m ultimately not confident will be politically effective, but I am confident is effectively the right thing to do. I’m trying to practice a political ethic derived from the Golden Rule, operating not just as an approach we take in our relationships as individuals, but corporately.

For the record I think it’s highly likely that it’s going to feel like we’re eating worms, or being fed to them, as Christians in Australia if we don’t radically change our approach (and even if we do). And this might be good for us. It might be deserved. But it might also be the cost of following Jesus.

Why not pragmatism?

Once upon a time, I was reminded the other day, I called myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’ — I thought the best thing to do was the pragmatic thing to do that secured the best results for Gospel proclamation. I wrote about this. I was convinced. And then I went to Bible college and thought more about how important ethos is for our proclaiming of the Gospel (logos), how you can’t just be about results but first have to cultivate virtue, and this virtue then amplifies what we have to say; the ethos of the Gospel of the crucified king is cruciformity. This is why Paul both consistently appeals to the example of Jesus (and his own example) but also retells how the example of Jesus has caused him to be beaten and bruised for the Gospel (2 Corinthians 10-11, Galatians 6).

The pragmatic approach described by John Stackhouse in his ABC piece (quoted yesterday), at least as I understand it, calculates a political strategy based on achievable results; it’s is essentially utilitarian, seeing politics as requiring dirty hands or compromise (which it absolutely does), but seeing the potential results as worth it. I can understand people landing on this position, though much of what is good about it you also get with pluralism (which is why I think David Brooks only identified two categories of political engagement in his piece I quoted yesterday). I’m not a pluralism as a ‘dirty hands’ option, but because I think it’s how you best keep ‘clean hands’ in a dirty world (for more on the hands metaphor see this piece). I understand and appreciate pragmatism, having held what I think is a fairly similar position, but I think pluralism (which looks like dirty hands to the idealist) is its own expression of virtue ethics; it says ‘as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ and requires us to set about building our own virtue forming institutions (especially the church), or rather it allows the Spirit to go about God’s business of transforming us into the image of Christ, as God’s handiwork — created in him to do good works, but allows other people the freedom to pursue their own handiwork. This is the best way, I believe for us to be able to proclaim the Gospel, and seek to persuade others to join our communities, or adopt our (true) monotheism.

Why then pluralism? How the Golden rule is different from ‘treat others as they’re going to treat you’

As I articulated in yesterday’s post about pluralism being preferable to idealism, there are many ways one might approach the fractured world we live in where we do face an aggressive polytheism that wants to eradicate a (perceived as aggressive or oppressive) monotheism (this polytheism is especially the secular idolatry of sex and individual liberty, so long as that liberty conforms to the collective mores). I don’t think we can totally blame the other at this point; the church (institutionally) has earned a reputation for trying to make people outside the church conform to our own patterns via politics, and being too slow to let go of that chokehold as our culture has become more diverse. This is where I believe pluralism is the right thing to do, but also why I don’t believe pluralism will achieve a desirable outcome for us politically, because mostly the people who follow the Golden Rule, are those who follow the golden ruler, Jesus, not ‘golden statues’. The golden rule is a subversive ethic because our default isn’t to treat people as we would have them treat us, but treat them as they’ve treated us (or as we’ve perceived it) or as they might treat us in the future. The self-seeking default is to hold on to power and play the zero sum game of ‘I win/they lose’ for as long as possible. Christians still playing this game have not realised that we lost the numbers a long time ago and now we’re systemically losing the sympathy of our neighbours and reinforcing the ‘oppressor’ narrative; so we shouldn’t be surprised when we become oppressed. My concern is that we get oppressed for the right stuff — faithfully proclaiming Jesus. Not the wrong stuff — being political oppressors, no matter how well intentioned, of those who do not worship Jesus.

Pluralism is where I think you  land if you take a communitarian approach to life in this world, and want the freedom for the church to be the church (religious freedom), seeing that as a good thing. Personally, I am ok with the church being the church without religious freedom, that’s been how the church has operated in many other times and places (still); and God will still freely be God even if those proclaiming the Gospel are in chains; his word, as the book of Acts finishes, will continue unhindered.

Pluralism is what it looks like to say “I want our community to have the freedom to define ourselves and live according to our vision of the good, so I will treat other communities built around different visions of the good with the same freedom.”  The government in a secular nation has a responsibility to not have a state religion, the government in a liberal democracy has a responsibility to uphold the freedoms of its citizens but to balance those freedoms with the freedoms of others; this is a politically coherent position in our framework, but building an ethic around what works politically is another form of pragmatism. For me, pluralism isn’t primarily a politically smart or socially defendable position, it is those things because it seems to me to be the right thing to do when you have many communities formed around many religions, and people with no religious affiliation forming their identity around other visions of a good life; pluralism is the right thing to do (as opposed to aggressive/oppressive monotheism or polytheism) because it is what I would have people who disagree with me offer me. It’s the right thing to do even when they don’t or won’t. And let me be clear, I don’t expect them to, ultimately, because I believe pluralism is only really something you can offer from a position of absolute confidence and certainty, or from genuine epistemic humility. You either have to be so confident that your view will ultimately be vindicated (in the Christian case ‘by God’, in other cases ‘by history’ or their gods) that you are able to operate with charity to those you disagree with, a sort of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ approach; or so genuinely humble about the views that you hold and open to being persuaded that you want to afford the opportunity for people to persuade you to every other group, a sort of ‘it’s possible I only know this by God’s grace, or I might actually be wrong about everything’ approach. It’s possible to be both (which is where I think generosity kicks in over confidence as a qualifier for pluralism). I don’t think modern secular ideologies have either the confidence (built from thousands of years of tradition and a coherent and compelling story) or the humility to play this game. There are certainly good reasons why oppressed minorities don’t feel this confidence based on how they’ve been wrongly treated, so I’m not condemning the passion of those who are fighting hard against their perceptions of an oppressive reality, that’s not my point; my point is that Christians have every reason to be confident, charitable, humble and generous in offering this sort of pluralism even to those who would crucify us, and even if thye do, because our confidence is not in earthly politics and human recognition and affirmation, but in God. I really love this quote I found in a book somewhere a long time ago. I come back to it regularly:

Incarnation means that God enables divinity to embody humanity.  Christians, like Jesus, are God’s incarnations, God’s temples, tabernacling in human flesh (John 1:14; Phil. 2:3-8).  Christians, spiritually transformed into the image of God, carry out God’s ministry in God’s way. Frequently incarnationalists relate to seekers from other world religions personally and empathetically (as Jesus taught Nicodemus).  Sometimes, however, they declare God’s social concerns by shaking up the status quo and “cleaning out the temple.”  The end result of incarnation in a non-Christian world is always some form of crucifixion.” — Gailyn Van Rheenen, Engaging Trends in Missions, 2004

We can confidently engage with others personally and empathetically — seeking to persuade but not restrict those who hold to other views — and even be crucified, because of the God we believe is at work in and through us.

The Daniel “Diet of Worms” Diet

One of my favourite recent posts from Stephen McAlpine was his ‘four Ds’ look at what it means to be a church shaped by Daniel’s life in Babylon; where the church defies, declares, dies and is delivered. I’ve always found the idea of a ‘Daniel Diet’ (popularised in some books in your local Christian book retailer) a relatively bizarre take on Daniel, but there is a certain sort of ‘diet’ Daniel anticipates for Christians (by first anticipating it for Jesus). I think Stephen nails it. There’s also a certain sort of optimistic mocking of worldly power in the light of who God is and his hand being at work in the world, I like the scholarly view that the Book of Daniel is a satirical critique of human empires and worldly power.

One of the better books I’ve read on political theology and strategy in the secular age is How To Survive The Apocalypse, authors Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra have a slightly different take on the Babylon motiff; they point out that in our modern age we don’t have a Nebuchadnezzar; our individualism means we’ve thrown down any institutional authority and replaced it with all of us clamouring to be king; a sort of anarchy where different communities or tribes (or individuals) are at war, just like in The Hunger Games (an example they cite). This war certainly profits some ‘king like’ sectors of the corporate realm — we’ve replaced politics with the market, or politics now serves the market).

“The question for politics today is how to build Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar has been dragged through the streets and hung at the gates.” — How To Survive The Apocalypse

They’re not pessimistic though, following Charles Taylor they suggest that change always moves simultaneously in a bunch of directions and our modern storytelling reveals a dissatisfaction with this sort of world; there might be a hope that we can patch things back together and that the church might be a part of this. But that will require a sort of uncompromised willingness to compromise; or a ‘faithful compromise’; we need to learn from Daniel, and perhaps, more recently Martin Luther, who has his own ‘diet’ where he pursued faithful monotheism within the confines of the church. We need to be both ‘faithful’ in our own community, and pluralist or compromising in the community at large. Both confident and humble. It is possible. Here’s Luther’s ‘Diet of Worms’ diet for faithfulness (ok, I know this is a bad pun).

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen. — Martin Luther, Diet of Worms (like most historians, I don’t believe he actually said “here I stand”… which is a shame).

We need to have Luther’s preparedness to stand for what we believe, and be crucified, but Daniel’s readiness to be part of the world that was happy to throw him to the lions, committed to its good (and optimistic in such a way that it fosters generosity). Here’s Wilkinson and Joustra:

“This may sound a bit unsatisfying, but it’s also the context for the hard work of making culture. It is a call to proximate and slow justice, to work among the ruins of a Secular age because it is our age, and we are responsible to find, restore, and build on the best of its motivating ideals. That’s Chief Astrologer Daniel kind of territory: making faithful compromise, resisting what needs resisting, changing where change can be made, building where the best is already present. Maybe the often-repeated Jeremiah invocation to “seek the welfare of the city” is just a good Hebrew summary of Taylor’s argument to find and build on the best of the motivating ideals of our Secular age. Nobody argues Babylon is or will be the City of God. But it can be better than it is now, and we can be part of that work…”

They touch on pluralism, identifying a sort of listless and historically radical pluralism operating in our world that defaults to ‘no religion’ and the destruction of institutions, but suggesting the answer to a world that probably won’t give us the pluralism we might desire is, counter-intuitively (or golden rule shaped) more pluralism, not less.

“… the better answer to the fear that accompanies a Secular age is to refocus the work of politics to finding common cause; locating, building, and maintaining overlapping consensus among our many and multiple modernities. There is no turning the clock back to pre-apocalypse times. There is only identifying and building a renewed consensus. This is what Taylor describes as a project worthy of any society deserving of the name “secular.” He argues that we need a radical redefinition of the secular. What should be called secular, he says, is not the inverse of the religious, but the (proper) response of the political community (the state) to diversity…

It calls for more, not less, pluralism in the public sphere. It calls for that understanding and those practices to be tested in dialogue to find areas of overlapping concern and agreement.”

This will hurt. It’ll probably be incredibly costly for many of us; but it’s the right thing to do and our confidence is not in the politics of this world, but the polis of the next. Not the cities of our age, but the city of God. But this is both our diet (in the trial sense) and our diet (in the suck it up sense). Here we stand, we can do none else.

 

Why generous pluralism is a better ideal than idealistic purism and provides a better future for our broad church (or why I resigned from GIST)

This week I resigned from a committee I’d been on since 2011, I was at the time of resigning, the longest serving current member. I resigned because I did not and could not agree with the statement the committee issued on the same sex marriage postal survey, and I wanted to freely and in good faith publicly say why I think it is wrong, and to stand by my previously published stance on the plebiscite.

Our two-fold purpose is to equip believers in Presbyterian Church of Queensland congregations to:
a) live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society and
b) engage in gospel-hearted apologetics that point to the great hope we have in Jesus.

The Gospel In Society Today Committee’s statement of purpose,

In short, I did not think the committee’s paper fulfilled either aspects of its charter — it is not ‘Gospel-hearted apologetics’ in that there is nothing in it that engages particularly well with the world beyond the church in such a way that a case for marriage as Christians understand it might convince our neighbours of the goodness of marriage, or the goodness of Jesus who fulfils marriage in a particular way; nor do I believe it effectively equipped believers to live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society; instead, it equipped believers who were already going to vote a particular way to keep voting that way and to have some Gospel-centred reasoning to do so. I’m not convinced the way it encourages people to vote or speak about that vote, or understand the situation grapples well with our secular context; as someone not committed to a no vote already, I found the paper unpersuasive even after a significant review process.

But there was also a deeper reason for my resignation (resigning over just one paper would not be a sensible course of action) — this paper reflects a particular approach to political engagement in a fractured and complicated world that I do not support, and there was no evidence the committee would adopt an alternative strategy. I resigned because the committee failed to practice the generous pluralism that I believe the church should be practicing inside and outside our communities (on issues that aren’t matters of doctrine — there’s a difference between polytheism and pluralism). I had asked for our committee to put forward the views of each member of the committee rather than the majority, because the committee’s remit is to ‘equip believers in our churches to engage in Gospel-hearted apologetics’ and ‘to live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society’ — and I believe part of that is equipping believers to operate as generously as possible with people we disagree with in these complicated times.

The statement issued by the committee is no Nashville Statement; it is an attempt to be generous to those we disagree with, without offering a solution to a disagreement that accommodates all parties (or even as many parties as imaginable); it is also an idealistic document, and so as it seeks to push for an ideal outcome it represents a failure to listen and engage well with other people who hold other views — be they in our churches, or in the community at large. It is this failure to listen that led me to believe my energy would be better spent elsewhere, but also that leads me to so strongly disagree with the paper that I am publishing this piece.

This is not, I believe, the way forward for the church in a complicated and contested secular world; it will damage our witness and it represents the same spirit to push towards an ideal ‘black and white’ solution in a world that is increasingly complicated. I’m proud of this same committee’s nuanced work on sexuality and gender elsewhere, and don’t believe this paper reflects the same careful listening engagement with the world beyond the church and the desires of the people we are engaging with (and how those desires might be more fulfilled in knowing the love of Jesus). By not understanding these desires (not listening) our speech will not be heard but dismissed. This paper is meant to serve an internal purpose for members of our churches (so to persuade people to vote no), but it is also published externally on our website without any clarification that it is not to be read as an example of Gospel centered apologetics, so one must conclude if one reads it online, that this is a paper that serves both purposes of the committee.

I’m not the only voice speaking out in favour of pluralism, nor am I claiming to be its smartest or best spokesperson. John Inazu’s book Confident Pluralism and his interview in Cardus’ Comment magazine gave me a language to describe what I believe is not just the best but the only real way forward in what Charles Taylor calls our ‘secular age’ — where the public square is a contested space accommodating many religious and non religious views. If we want to resist the harder form of secularism which seeks to exclude all religious views from the public square, it seems to me that we either need a monotheistic theocracy (but whose?) or a pluralistic democracy that accommodates as many views as possible or acceptable; and this requires a certain amount of imagination and a sacrifice of idealism. The thing is, for many of us who’ve been brought up in an environment that defaults to the hard secular where the sexual revolution is assumed (ie anyone under about 38, or those who are a bit older but did degrees in the social sciences), we’ve already, generally, had to contest for our beliefs and adopt something like a pluralism. There are ways to prevent pluralism — like home schooling or insularly focused Christian education, but if people have grown up in a ‘public’ not stewarded by a particular stream of Christianity that deliberately excludes listening to the world, or if they are not particularly combative and idealistic types who have played the culture wars game from early in their childhood, then they are likely to have adopted something that looks pluralistic.

Here’s a quote from John Inazu’s interview with James K.A Smith, from Comment:

“JKAS: What have you learned since your book has come out? Would you already do something differently based on how it’s been received, whether by religious or non-religious audiences?

JI: What’s particularly true of millennial audiences, whether religious or secular, is that, as a descriptive matter, the reality of pluralism is already well-ingrained in their lives. This is their existence, so it’s not surprising to them that we have deep differences and we encounter people who are quite unlike us, because that’s how most of them have lived their lives. That’s less true with older generations.

Where I’ve seen the most resistance from the religious side of things is with a concern about getting too close to people who don’t share our values. That has always struck me as odd because the gospel example here is Jesus going into very messy spaces and being the light in those spaces.”

But it’s also not just Inazu who has spoken of pluralism; it’s also John Stackhouse in a recent piece for the ABC Religion and Ethics portal. In a piece titled Christians and Politics: Getting Beyond ‘All’ or ‘Nothing’, Stackhouse says:

“In the light of this reality, we can see now that there are three kinds of people who undertake political action.

The ideologue has it easiest. He simply asks himself, in any situation on any issue, what’s ultimately right. Then he does everything he can to realize that ideal. That’s the way many Christians today are engaging in political action, whether on the left, right, or whatever. If we believe that abortion is wrong, then we work to outlaw it. If we think that gay marriage is consonant with Christian values, then we should make it legal. Graphic movies, globalization, immigration, climate change – whatever it is that we believe is right on any issue we simply seek to universalize by whatever means are available.

The pragmatist also starts with the question of what’s ultimately right. But then she carefully appraises the situation and works for what she deems is currently possible. If abortion is wrong, but the best she can do is get a ban on partial-birth abortions, she works for that. If gay marriage is wrong, but the best she can do is see “civil unions” instituted instead, then that’s what she aims at.

The pluralist asks about what’s ultimately right and what’s currently possible. But he interposes a third, admittedly odd, question between those two: What is penultimately right? Might it be God’s will that what is ultimately right not prevail immediately? The pluralist Christian might have strong views about x. He also is pragmatic enough to know that a total ban on alternatives to his views of x is politically inconceivable in his society. But he is also willing to consider the possibility that in God’s providence, it is better for there to be more than one view of x allowed in society. He might see that, yes, ultimately God’s will is to get rid of this or that, but penultimately it serves God’s purposes for society to allow this or that to remain. He doesn’t always come to that conclusion, to be sure, and often acts just like the pragmatist. But he at least asks that question, and sometimes acts differently as a result.”

Now, it’s interesting to me, particularly in the process that led to my resignation from the committee to consider how the dynamic between these three camps plays out within Christian community (it’s also interesting to consider how these three categories mesh with three I suggested using the metaphor of hands — clean hands, dirty hands, and busy hands in a post a while back); I’ll go out on a limb here and say idealism is always partisan, and so we need to be extremely careful when speaking as an institutional church if  we choose to pursue idealism in the secular political sphere (especially on issues of conscience where there are arguably many possible faithful ways to respond to a situation with an imagination that rejects the status quo served up to us by others); while pluralism is the way to maintain clean hands as an institution in that model.

The idealistic stream of Christianity will see the pluralist as not just compromising politically but theologically, because while the pluralist will be operating with perhaps something like a retrieval ethic, the idealist will operate with something more like a creational ethic or a deontological ethic or a divine command ethic and so see their path as clearly the right way, and thus other paths as wrong. The pragmatist will have sympathies in both directions, and the pluralist will seek to accommodate all these views so long as they still recognise the truth the idealists want to uphold (if they don’t they’ve become ‘polytheists’). I predict the church, generally (and specifically in our denominational context) will face a certain amount of problems if not be damaged beyond repair if we put idealists in charge and they tolerate pragmatists but exclude pluralists — especially if those who have grown up needing to be pluralists to hold their faith. A push to idealism rather than confident, or generous, pluralism, will alienate the younger members of our church who are typically not yet in leadership (and this dynamic has played out in the Nashville Statement), and it will ultimately lead to something like the Benedict Option, a withdrawal from the pluralistic public square into our own parallel institutions and private ‘public’.

It’s interesting to me that GIST fought so hard against withdrawing from the Marriage Act, because, in part, the government recognises marriage contracts entered into by the parties getting married and conducted by a recognised celebrant according to our marriage rites — so there is already a difference between how we view marriage and how the state does — pluralism — but has now reverted to arguing that the government doesn’t just recognise marriage according to a broader definition than we hold but promotes and affirms particular types according to a particular definition. I know that was our argument because it was the one I spoke to in the discussion at our General Assembly.

Here’s my last smarter person that me making the case for pluralism in these times, New York Times columnist David Brooks in his review of the Benedict Option. He opens by describing two types of Christians not three — and Stackhouse’s pragmatist and pluralist categories fall into the ‘ironist’ category.

“Faith seems to come in two personalities, the purist and the ironist. Purists believe that everything in the world is part of a harmonious whole. All questions point ultimately to a single answer. If we orient our lives toward this pure ideal, and get everybody else to, we will move gradually toward perfection.

The ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one. In this world, the pieces don’t quite fit together and virtues often conflict: liberty versus equality, justice versus mercy, tolerance versus order. For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs. There is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living. For the ironists, like Reinhold Niebuhr or Isaiah Berlin, those purists who aim to be higher than the angels often end up lower than the beasts.”

If the purists run the show we’re going to end up with a very pure church that ultimately excludes most impure people ever feeling loved enough, or understood enough, to bother listening to what we have to say. Purists are necessary though to keep us from polytheism or losing the ideals. Here’s more from Brooks:

“My big problem with Rod [Dreher] is that he answers secular purism with religious purism. By retreating to neat homogeneous monocultures, most separatists will end up doing what all self-segregationists do, fostering narrowness, prejudice and moral arrogance. They will close off the dynamic creativity of a living faith. 

There is a beautiful cohesion to the monastic vocation. But most people are dragged willy-nilly into life — with all its contradictions and complexities. Many who experience faith experience it most vividly within the web of their rival loves — different communities, jobs, dilemmas. They have faith in their faith. It gives them a way of being within the realities of a messy and impure world.

The right response to the moment is not the Benedict Option, it is Orthodox Pluralism. It is to surrender to some orthodoxy that will overthrow the superficial obsessions of the self and put one’s life in contact with a transcendent ideal. But it is also to reject the notion that that ideal can be easily translated into a pure, homogenized path. It is, on the contrary, to throw oneself more deeply into friendship with complexity, with different believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, the dissimilar and unalike.”

Brooks uses ‘Orthodox’ to qualify pluralism, Inazu ‘Confident’; I’ve settled on ‘generous’ (see my review of the Benedict Option for why).

If our denomination puts the idealists/purists in power without an ethos of including the pluralists (a functional pluralism) they will always by definition exclude the pluralists; whereas if we adopt a pluralistic approach to the public square (and to how we give voice to those who disagree with us within the camp of orthodoxy) then we will necessarily also give space to the pluralists. The choice we are faced with is a choice between a broad church and a narrow one. What’s interesting is that pluralism actually becomes an ideal in itself; one of the reasons I resigned is that I am fundamentally an idealist about pluralism, once it became clear this would not be our posture or strategy, I could no longer participate (because I was excluded, but also because I am an idealist and saw the purist-idealism as an uncompromising error).

So this is a relatively long preamble to establish why I think the position adopted by GIST (idealism/purism) and how it was resolved within the committee (idealism/purism/no pluralism) is deeply problematic and a strategic misfire in our bid to engage the world with ‘gospel hearted apologetics’.

Generous pluralism and ‘living faithfully for Jesus in a secular society’ and ‘engaging in gospel-hearted apologetics’ in a polytheistic world

GIST’s philosophy of ministry acknowledges that we live in a ‘secular society’ but maintain some sort of difference from that society by ‘living faithfully for Jesus’. The idealism that Stackhouse speaks of, or purism that Brooks speaks of, will fail if society is truly secular.

Idealism will fail us because at the heart of idealism is not simply a commitment to monotheism as the option we faithfully choose amongst many contested options in the broader public, but as the option the broader public should also choose as the temporal best (following Stackhouse’s definitions). So we get, in the GIST statement, sentences like, which holds out a sort of ideal around marriage (rather than a ‘faithful life’ within a secular society):

“Ultimately if we want to see our society return wholeheartedly to God’s design for marriage, we need people to embrace God’s solution to the sin which has led society away from it.” — GIST Statement on Same Sex Marriage Plebiscite

It seems unlikely to me that this ideal of society returning wholeheartedly to God’s design for marriage (essentially a Christian society) is possible this side of the return of Jesus (which is why I’m a pluralist), and I am confused about this being an ideal that we are to pursue as Christians.

Here’s why. I think this sort of wholehearted pursuit of God’s design for marriage was an ideal in Israel (but the sense that the ideal is not actually possible is found in God’s accommodation of divorce in the law of Moses, though he hates it and it falls short of the lifelong one flesh union). I think this ultimately is a form of the pursuit of monotheism for all in society; a noble ideal formed by an eschatology where every knee will one day bow to Jesus (Philippians 2). Israel was to pursue a sort of societal monotheism — this is why they were commanded to destroy all idols and idolatrous alters — utterly — when coming into the land (Deuteronomy 4-7) and to keep themselves from idols. There is no place for polytheism — or idolatry — within the people of God (and yet the divorce laws recognise there is a place for ‘non-ideal’ broken relationships and dealing with sin to retrieve certain good outcomes). Israel was to be monotheistic and to guard the boundaries of monotheism within its civic laws. We aren’t in Israel any more — but the church is the kingdom of God, and we as worshippers of Jesus are called to monotheism in how we approach life, this is why I believe it’s important that the church upholds God’s good design for marriage in a contested public square as part of our faithful witness to God’s goodness.

Now, while an Israelite was to destroy idols when coming into the land, and Christians are to ‘keep ourselves from idols’, outside of Israel our monotheism as Christians manifests itself in the Great Commission — the pursuit of worshippers of God — disciples — through worshipping God. When Paul hits the polytheistic city of Athens as a monotheist he adopts a pluralist strategy; one based on listening to the views of the people in Athens, on understanding their idolatrous impulses, and of confidently redirecting those impulses to the true and living God. His confidence is that when the Gospel is presented as a monotheistic truth in a pluralistic culture God will work to draw people back to his design for life.

Societal shifts towards God’s design have happened historically (think Constantine and Rome), and they do happen through Christians living and proclaiming the Gospel, but I’m not entirely sure that a Christian society should be our aim rather than a society of Christians (and the difference is how people who aren’t Christians are accommodated in the laws and institutions of each — ie whether the culture is pluralistic or monotheistic). Ancient cultures were also profoundly different to our individualistic, ‘democratised’ age in that the way to convert a culture was either to conquer it (think Babylon and Israel — or the spread of Babylonian religion to the hearts of most of those they captured (but not all Israel), or Rome and the imperial cult), or to convert the king. Kings functioned as high priests of the civic religion and the very image of God, and so to convert a king was to turn the hearts of the people to a different God (think Jonah in Nineveh, or Nebuchadnezzar’s response and edicts after witnessing God’s work in Daniel, and to some extent, Constantine in Rome). It is pretty unlikely that a society wide shift like this will happen when there isn’t a close connection to the ‘civil law’ and the religion of a nation.

“How then should Christians seek to influence the laws of the state in this area? In terms of voting the answer to this seems relatively straightforward. Since we’re being asked by the state what in our view would be best for our society, and seeing as God’s good design for marriage is best not just for Christians but for all people and for our society generally; we are encouraging Christians to vote ‘no’ in this plebiscite.” — The GIST Paper

I would argue this approach to voting is only straightforward if you adopt a purist-idealist position and reject pluralism as a valid good. That it isn’t actually straightforward that the best thing for our society is that non-Christians be conformed to our vision of human flourishing, and so our definition of marriage, without the telos — or purpose — of human flourishing and marriage as part of that being established first.

I’d also say this is an odd interpretation of what we are being asked. The question is not ‘what would be best for society’ — to approach it that way automatically leads to adopting an ‘idealist’ position; it begs the question. What we are being asked, literally, is “should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” In a secular society that’s an entirely more complicated question about what communities and views a secular government should recognise in its framework. The government’s responsibility is to provide the maximum amount of compromise or breadth for its citizens that can be held by consensus. It’s a tough gig. The government’s definition of marriage, including no-fault divorce, is already different from the Christian view. I marry people according to the rites of the Presbyterian Church which includes and articulates a vision of marriage connected to the telos of marriage — the relationship between Jesus and the church; the government’s definition of marriage is broader than mine, but includes mine.

This is the point at which I disagree significantly with the paper (I also disagree with the way it treats recognition as affirmation, fails to listen to, understand, and respond to the ‘human rights’ argument for same sex marriage by simply blithely dismissing it, and how it sees secular laws as establishing ideals rather than minimums (the state can and does pursue ideals through incentives and campaigns, but there are no incentives being offered to gay couples to marry that they do not already receive). The law is a blunt instrument that recognises things held as common assumptions of the minimum standards of life together, like ‘robbery is wrong’ and governments can incentivise not-robbing with welfare payments, and prevent the evil of robbery by incentivising or subsidising local governments or businesses introducing better lighting and security. Ethics aren’t formed so much by law but by the development of ideals and virtues (and arguably this happens through narratives not law, which is why so much of the Old Testament law is actually narrative even in the little explanations of different rules).

Generous Pluralism, the GIST Paper, and the Priesthood of all believers

This GIST paper was adopted after a lengthy review process, and through much discussion including three face to face meetings and deliberation by flying minute. Throughout the course of the discussion (and before it) it became clear that there were different views about what ‘faithfully living for Jesus in a secular society’ looks like; and so what equipping believers to do that looks like. I suggested we put forward the best case for different responses (an alternative to the majority view, and for it to be clear who held it and who did not, on the committee. In the discussions around the paper the majority of the committee held that we did not want to “give credence” to views other than the no vote being what equips believers to live faithfully for Jesus; even while acknowledging that my position was legitimately within our doctrinal and polity frameworks. This was ultimately why I resigned.

I don’t believe this decision to exclude a possible way to live faithfully for Jesus (and what I think is the best way) fulfils the committee’s charter if there are actually legitimate faithful ways to abstain or vote yes.

I also this fails a fundamentally Reformed principle in how we think of believers, and this principle is part of why I think a confident or generous pluralism within the church, and within the boundaries of orthodoxy, is the best way to equip believers. A confident pluralism isn’t built on the idea that all ideas are equally valid, but rather that we can be confident that the truth will persuade those who are persuaded by truth. That we can be confident, in disagreement, that a priesthood of all believers do not need a priestly or papal authority to interpret Scripture and the times for them. Believing that such a committee writes to equip such a priesthood of all believers (those our charter claims we serve), and that they should apply their wisdom, submit to scripture, and participate in the world according to conscience is the best way to equip believers to live faithfully.

A position of generous pluralism applied to a secular society outside the church probably leads to abstaining, and possibly to voting yes, depending on your ethic (how much a retrieval ethic plays into your thinking and how much you think the law affirms or normalises rather than recognising and retrieving good things from relationships that already exist (where children already exist).

Because a confident, or generous, pluralism relies on the priesthood of all believers and trusts that Christians should come to their own position assessing truth claims in response to Scripture I’m relatively comfortable with space being made for people to hear views other than mine. An example of this is that I host the GIST website, free of charge, on my private server at my cost. People are reading their views at my expense, and I will keep doing this as an act of hospitality though I believe their views are wrong. I also host and only lightly moderate comments and critical responses to things I write. This is a commitment I have to listening, to dialogue, to hospitality, to accommodation of others, to the priesthood of all believers (and a confidence that the truth will persuade those who it persuades), and to pluralism — and the lack of this commitment from others on the committee is in favour of purism-idealism, is fundamentally, why I resigned from the committee.

While the GIST paper tries to hold the created order (or ‘marriage as a creation ordinance)’ in tension with the resurrection; following the Oliver O’Donovan ‘resurrection and moral order’ model (and this was part of our discussions as a committee); the problem with creational ethics (or arguments from God’s design/natural order) that establish a universal good for all people, even non-Christians, is that they do not, in my opinion, sufficiently recognise the supremacy of Jesus or how Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets (because ‘moral law’ is still law we find in the written law of Moses that Jesus claims is written about him). This is a point at which I diverge slightly from the capital R reformed tradition, but where I think I am probably prepared to argue I’m standing in the traditions of the Reformers (sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers).

Turning to the Reformers for a model of a political theology from our secular context is interesting; the governments operating around the Reformation (for example the German nobility, or Calvin’s Geneva) were not secular but sectarian; and, for example, Luther wrote to the German nobility to call them to act as priests as part of the priesthood of all believers, rather than be led by the pope (a vital thing to convince them of if he was going to make space for the reformation). It’s fair to say that Calvin and Luther weren’t pluralists, they played the sectarian game at the expense of Catholicism or other forms of later Protestantism (see Luther’s Against The Peasants, and of course, his awful treatise on the Jews). When someone claims their political theology is consistent with the Reformed tradition and seeks to apply it to a secular democracy, I get a little concerned.

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people…

Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood, as St. Peter says in I Peter 2:9, “Ye are a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom,” and the book of Revelation says, Rev. 5:10 “Thou hast made us by Thy blood to be priests and kings.”

This is an interesting paper from Luther in that it doesn’t provide any sort of model for interacting with a government that is secular or not as faithful as any other members of the priesthood of all believers — instead what his political theology in his context is about is a government he treats as Christian being coerced by a church he holds to be the anti-Christ.

The Reformation was built on an epistemic humility that comes from the challenging of human authority and tradition. Where the GIST committee, in its deliberation, appealed to the Reformed category of a ‘Creation Ordinance’, I’d want to appeal to the Reformed approach to scriptures that sees everything fulfilled in Jesus — even the creation ordinances like work, Sabbath, and marriage. It’s reasonably easy to establish that Jesus is our rest and Lord of the Sabbath, that his resurrection restores our ability to work in a way that is no longer frustrated (1 Cor 15:58, Ephesians 2) — that there’s a telos or purpose to these creation ordinances that is best fulfilled in Christ, so that they can’t universally be understood by idolatrous humans without Jesus, and yet our arguments about protecting marriage or upholding marriage is that we are upholding God’s good design for all people. GIST’s paper is infinitely better than anything the ACL or the Coalition for Marriage is putting out that only argues from creation, in that it includes the infinite — by incorporating the resurrection; but the idea of a creation ordinance that should push us away from accommodating others via a public, generous, pluralism is an idealism that I would argue fails to accommodate the relationship between creation and its redeemer, and the telos of marriage (which doesn’t exist in the new creation except as the relationship between us and Jesus) (Matt 22, Rev 21).

A Confession

I’d served this committee for seven years. In the first two years I was in a minority (with another member) with a majority holding to a different sort of idealism; an idealism not built on the Gospel, but on God’s law or the ‘whole counsel of God’ (with no sense of how God’s whole counsel is fulfilled in Jesus). We orchestrated a changing of the guard on this committee that was not generous or pluralistic; we excluded a voice from the committee that was a legitimate representation of members of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

We pursued a platform narrower than the breadth of the church and so alienated a percentage of our members; I’ve come to regret this, while being proud of our record (and despite the committee being returned unopposed year on year since). I don’t think excluding voices is the best way to fulfil our charter, but rather a poly-phonic approach where a range of faithful options are given to the faithful — our priesthood — in order to be weighed up. This will be a challenge within the assembly of Queensland where there is a large amount of accord, but a much larger challenge within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, which is broader (and more fractured).

Conclusion

At present in the Presbyterian denomination our committees are operating like priests or bishops; sending missives to our churches that carry a sort of authority they should not be granted in our polity; I understand the efficiencies created by governance and operations via committee, but if Luther’s priesthood of all believers is truly a fundamental principle of Reformed operation in the world we should be more comfortable and confident that people being transformed by the Spirit and facing the complexity of life in our secular world will act according to conscience and in submission to God’s word, but might operate faithfully as Christians anywhere between idealism, pragmatism and pluralism, as purists or ironists; and if we put the purist-idealists in charge (or our committees function from that framework) we might significantly narrow the church and limit our voice and imagination; cutting off opportunities for Gospel-hearted apologetics from those who might walk through our idol-saturated streets and engage differently with our idol worshipping neighbours.

Why calling something idolatry is not ‘soft-pedalling’ on sin; and how idolatry is breath-takingly dangerous

I’m an asthmatic. For most of my life I’ve managed to mostly ignore this, except when exercising in winter, but lately, my asthma has been worse than in the past and I’ve found myself with a preventer — when I remember to take it, things go well for me, when I don’t, well, there’s nothing worse than feeling breathless and scrounging around the house looking for the ventolin inhaler my kids have hidden somewhere. That sense of not being able to breathe is oppressive, and scary, and has me considering the shortness of my breath not just in the moment (when it comes to lung capacity), but in my finitude — I have a limited number of breaths I will take with these lungs before I expire. And asthma — the disordered restriction of those airways — means that some of my breathing is more breathless than it should be; and that those breaths in particular serve as a reminder of my mortality.

When I’m wheezing and spluttering and trying to breath what I need is ventolin. I can definitely reduce the impact of my asthma on my life by taking preventative measures like being healthy. But in that moment of breathlessness; if all you do is hold up a picture of healthy airways and tell me I should do all in my power to have those, I’ll still expire. And you’ll be a massive jerk; especially if you have some ventolin in your back pocket.

In the fallout of a controversial recent post it has been suggested that the framework I’ve put forward for speaking about sexuality in the modern world — that it’s a form of idolatry — is ‘soft pedalling’ when it comes to calling sin “sin”.

I disagree.

The Bible, from start to finish, is pretty sure that idolatry is deadly and destructive — the most deadly and destructive sin — and I’d argue that it sees most sinful actions as a result of an idolatrous disposition. It even gets the top two spots in the ten commandments.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. — Exodus 20:3-6

I’ve written stacks of stuff about how when Genesis says we’re made in the image of God, this uses a word used elsewhere (in the ancient world) for ‘idol statue’ — and our job is to be the living, breathing representatives of God in his world, which is what makes idolatry a particular inversion of the created order where we, as Paul puts it in Romans, worship the creation instead of the creator; this represents a disordering of the natural world — we were meant to rule the world with God, and instead are being ruled by it. The second commandment is a big deal because breaking it turns the created order on its head. As we live in disobedience to this command we’re actually living against the ‘created order’ — our order-bringing mission in the world — which disorders the world, and us. This disordering involves, as Augustine would put it, a ‘disordering of our loves’ — if we were made to chiefly love and worship God, and rule over the creation, but put created things in the God slot in our hearts, we end up living lives that are not optimal but destructive. Or to use the flourishing language that picks up the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ command in Genesis 1, we live lives that are not fruitful, and instead spread death. When I say something is idolatry I’m not backing away from saying something is sinful, I’m diagnosing something as terminal, using the same diagnosis the Bible gives. But this diagnosis comes with a particular treatment (as I’ll suggest right at the bottom of this post).

A lot of the debate around changes to the definition of marriage, because they misdiagnose the problem (in my opinion), miss the solution. Lots of people in my theological camp — those who hold Reformed convictions about God and the world — talk about ‘creation ordinances’ — things that God instituted for ‘all people’ not just ‘his people’ ‘in the beginning’ — before people rejected him and the world was cursed — that last beyond that curse (typically largely undamaged by it and still accessible and good for all people). These ‘creation ordinances’ typically are listed as marriage and multiplication, work and dominion, and the sabbath. These are part of how ‘God has ordered the world’ for all people; a sort of ‘natural law’ that should be apparent for everybody.

These ‘creation ordinances’ are often linked to the concept of ‘common grace‘ (wikipedia); they’re part of how God continues to bless all people, and they become the basis Christians in this framework use to assess the work of governments; whose role relates to common grace as they ‘restrain evil’ and who are not just meant to restrain bad things but uphold these basic universal goods.

It’s interesting to consider how far our culture has departed from work and dominion, and from sabbath, and how little we made a fuss about those changes (and other changes to marriage — like no fault divorce) when considering how stridently we argue for marriage now… the onus now seems to be on those who suggest these ordinances are undamaged by the fall to demonstrate how this is the case (not just insist it is), or we need a different model for explaining the world (and the Biblical data).

Now. I have some issues with this basic framework as it has been applied — because I think it misses a couple of important and foundational ‘creation ordinances’ that humanity departs from as soon as we’re given the opportunity; and because we walk away from these, I think this gives us a framework for understanding why humans (individuals, cultures, and governments) walk away from the others; and what is required to have people walk back. I also think these particular commands — pre-fall — are particularly connected to our telos or purpose as humans, and that post fall they are frustrated rather than ongoing; that ‘work’ was meant to be the work of extending the garden of Eden — as the place God dwelled with humanity (like the Temple) — over the face of the earth; that ‘sabbath’ was meant to be the enjoyment of rest with God in this expanding garden, and that marriage was to reflect the image of God in a one-flesh union ‘male and female’; and that multiplication was the multiplication of living breathing images of God who would represent him in his ‘temple-kingdom’ as it spread. Nature is oriented towards a certain function, and that function is broken by sin. So, for example, I see these functions being recaptured in the church — the cultural mandate becomes the Great commission (which sees the ‘temple-kingdom’ of the Church — people with the Spirit — spreading around the globe).

But let’s work with this category of ‘creation ordinances’ being the ongoing things that God gives to all people for our universal good. I think the list is missing a few, and here’s the two things I’d say God gives to all humans that are, perhaps, bigger and more vital to our humanity than those other things held to be ordinances — ‘image bearing’ and ‘breath’. These are two concepts that Christians have used politically in very similar ways to the others — in upholding the sanctity of human life — and they are certainly universal. But they are also closely tied to our created purpose in the world; the other creation ordinances, and those two commandments quoted above.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. — Genesis 2:7

If these are not ‘creation ordinances’ — that are true for all people of all time — then I’m not sure that ‘creation ordinance’ is a valid category.

They’re also concepts the prophets return to as they call God’s people back from idolatry (and arguably at the heart of how Israel is meant to be a blessing to the nations — who share these realities — as they call those nations away from idolatry and to life in God.

Because here’s the thing. Idolatry distorts these creation ordinances. Idolatry literally takes your breath away. It is worse than asthma. It is deadly. And Idolatry deforms us as we are conformed into the image of the images (or other gods) we worship. Idolatry is the gradual process of eradicating God’s image in our lives and replacing it with an idol — a process that is complete when we become breathless.

Consider, for a moment, how the Bible speaks of idolatry distorting work, or the ‘cultural mandate’ — to take the good things God has made and create with them; Genesis 2 speaks of the gold in Eden; look what Isaiah says about those who fashion idols from silver and gold.

With whom, then, will you compare God?
    To what image will you liken him?
 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
    and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
    and fashions silver chains for it.
 A person too poor to present such an offering
    selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
    to set up an idol that will not topple. — Isaiah 40:18-20

“Tell us, you idols,
    what is going to happen.
Tell us what the former things were,
    so that we may consider them
    and know their final outcome.
Or declare to us the things to come,
     tell us what the future holds,
    so we may know that you are gods.
Do something, whether good or bad,
    so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.
 But you are less than nothing
    and your works are utterly worthless;
    whoever chooses you is detestable. — Isaiah 41:22-24

All who make idols are nothing,
    and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
    they are ignorant, to their own shame.
 Who shapes a god and casts an idol,
    which can profit nothing?
People who do that will be put to shame;
    such craftsmen are only human beings.
Let them all come together and take their stand;
    they will be brought down to terror and shame. — Isaiah 44:9-11

This is maybe my favourite bit of this extended treatment of how idolatry is fundamentally a departure from not just the creator but these created ordinances, talking about the craftsman who cuts a block of wood in half and uses one half to make an idol and the other as kindling to cook his food:

Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”” — Isaiah 44:20

It’s not just Isaiah either…

Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;
    every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.
The images he makes are a fraud;
    they have no breath in them. — Jeremiah 10:14

The thing is; the Old Testament consistently says the product of idolatry is that we become what we worship. And when we worship breathless and dead gods, rather than the living, breathing, God, we become breathless. 

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.— Psalm 135:15-18

Here’s where ‘common grace’ kicks in — for as long as we’re still living and breathing we’re still, in some capacity, representing the God who made us — whether we like it or not — but our idolatry means we’re hurtling towards breathlessness as we hurtle away from the ‘creation ordinance’ of life representing God and ruling over creation (because we’ve made created things our God). And this life and breath is still a good gift from God — a ‘common’ gift to all people.

This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it. — Isaiah 42:5

Ultimately it’s idolatry that takes us to death as its natural end… it takes breath away, and it takes our bearing the image of the living, breathing, God away. It changes the way we work and rest. Why should it not also threaten how a culture understands marriage and multiplication? At some point in this trajectory from living and breathing and bearing God’s image a person — be they an idol maker, or idol worshipper — sees God’s common grace to them overcome by the effects of their sin and idolatry. This seems to be also true of cultures. At some point, culturally, a shared idol distorts us or deforms us away from the image of God and into the image of a culture’s gods; at some point our shared loves created by cultural stories disorder our loves so that we don’t love God as we were made to and as the Bible commands. The cultures in the Old Testament that were idolatrous were led by kings who were basically the ‘popes’ of their idol cults — who were also held to be ‘the image of god’ in their cultures. Idolatry happens corporately and culturally, and typically around narratives about what a god is and what they require and provide. Common grace is held in tension with the sort of temporal judgment for idolatry Paul speaks about in Romans 1 — where we no longer see the natural as natural — or with what has been called the ‘noetic effect‘ of sin.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. — Romans 1:20-21

Here’s how I understand the logic of this passage — God’s invisible qualities should be clearly seen from creation — creation ordinances are relatively logically clear and embedded in nature itself; but oriented towards us knowing God. When we deliberately choose not to know God, culturally or individually, we’re no longer able to see these obvious connections — our thinking and loves — our minds and our hearts — are darkened or ‘disordered’ — and this is ultimately an act of judgment from God. Our breathlessness starts now; the process of becoming what we worship starts now. God gives us what we want. And the result is that we individually and corporately start walking away from life-giving, common grace producing  ‘creation ordinances’ and towards death and destruction.

Another way of framing this might be ‘how much uncommon grace is required to pull someone back to knowing and worshipping God’? And then ‘how do we do this’? We’ll get there below. Before we do, there’s a pretty compelling account of how the noetic effect changes the way we see some good things God has made (like moral ordering of the universe) in a different degree to how we see others (like the logical ordering of the universe — eg mathematics) in this paper on how sin effects scholarship; I think it’s worth grappling with that paper and at least seeing that common grace and the noetic effect are held in tension. I’ve written elsewhere how because of the ‘subjectivity’ created by sin and idolatry (following this model), marriage might be more like music than mathematics.

It seems to me that from the limited survey of some Biblical gear above that it is reasonable to conclude that sin changes our ability to know and worship God — it pulls us away not just from the creator but from the ‘creation ordinances’ in their pre-fall state — even if those things are all still good and provide ‘common grace’ benefits to people as a part of what it means for us to be human. The questions for us with this data are: how much is this effect corporate, not just individual? And at what point does the ‘noetic effect’ of sin eclipse common grace in a culture (or an individual)?

At some point we need to be able to account for why it is that the people in our culture are so happy to redefine a ‘creation ordinance’ if the category of creation ordinance is going to have any valid descriptive power when it comes to life in this world. As well as accounting for why our world seems to be departing from these creation ordinances, we probably need to better account for why it’s people who believe in a creator who seem to be less likely to do this (why is the coalition for marriage just a bunch of religious leaders?). It’s not just that these communities are more sold on history or biology. It’s not just that theism comes with an orientation towards the ‘classical view’ of the world; we have to account for why others don’t buy this. I think the answer that best accounts for and describes this reality is idolatry. That’s the diagnosis. It’s serious. And it’s terminal if not properly treated.

Let me be unequivocal in not ‘soft-pedalling’…

The Bible says that marriage is created by God as a ‘one flesh’ relationship between one man and one woman. This ‘one flesh’ relationship is sexual, but also unitive in that it forges a single identity unit of ‘two-persons-as-one’. It is part of how such a man and woman then bear the image of God, and marriage is part of how we humans were to fulfil the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ — this isn’t to say that every person has to be married to bear the image of God, or contribute to fruitfulness, or even that children are the ‘purpose’ of marriage or having children its essence.

This is God’s design for humanity and is part of what a truly flourishing society is built on. To depart from this design is sin.

That we have walked away from God’s design for sex and marriage is a result of sin. The deadly sin of idolatry where we’ve, as a culture, decided to worship sex (a created thing); and see the flourishing human life as being connected to love and sex — and so marriage — rather than being connected to God. This is idolatry — it’s not just our gay neighbours who do this (and it’s not just outside the church); this is a culture wide decision to live in a different story and to put a ‘created thing’ as an ultimate good. Part of the problem with how the church speaks about this is that we’re so complicit with the idolatry of sex and marriage — the idea that these are necessary for human flourishing — that it sounds like we’re actually denying a thing we think of as god (or an ultimate good) to others. When we extol the virtues of marriage and family in idolatrous terms — as though they truly satisfy — and then deny them to people who are different to us, we do not sound loving. This is part of why talking about Jesus in this conversation about marriage and sex is not just window dressing…

This sin, or idolatry, is deadly in that it pulls us away from bearing God’s image as it forms us according to a different image or vision of the good and flourishing life. This is why our culture has walked away from God’s design for marriage. We’re pursuing a different God, or ultimate good. Once we, as a culture, pursue that good it makes sense to afford the ‘good’ of marriage to any one of our neighbours who is living in this story or according to this vision.

If what the Bible says about idolatry is true then this is deadly. It’s not soft-pedalling on sin to call the push for same sex marriage a ‘religious’ or ‘idolatrous’ thing; but like any doctor delivering a fatal prognosis our bedside manner is important. Especially if there is a cure and a treatment plan…

At some point sin means our ‘breath’ is more like the breath of an asthmatic on the way to a fatal asthma attack than like a human with a healthy set of lungs — or like the lungs of somebody who has deliberately set out to reduce their capacity by unhealthy living or smoking. When I’m in a state of breathlessness, panicking as I open every drawer in the house looking for an inhaler, I don’t just need to picture what my lungs should be without this disorder. We don’t treat an asthmatic or someone with asbestosis or mesothelioma by showing them a picture of healthy lungs — creation ordinances — and telling them to jump back to living that way; we treat disordered lungs by fixing the disorder, or with a lung transplant.

We respond to idolatry — disordered love — with the Gospel of Jesus, which re-orders our love for God, others, ourselves, and the world.

God restores breath to breathless lungs, and restores his image in us, by the Spirit as it conforms us to the image of Jesus.

Without this intervention we’re holding up a picture of healthy lungs to an asthmatic as they suffocate to death.

I’ll unpack more of this in part 2.

How (not what) to vote in the plebiscite in 11 (not easy) steps


I made this image for my last how to vote in 11 not easy steps post; it still seems relevant…

It’s funny that in the context of a big sermon in Matthew’s Gospel on how people are going to persecute Christians for being different, that talks about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, and turning the other cheek, Jesus teaches people to pray the most political prayer ever. It’s funny that our politicians pray this prayer when parliament sits too (and they should probably stop it). It goes like this. You might know it.

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’ — Matthew 6:9-13

Your kingdom come… your will be done…

Makes voting simple. Right?

This prayer should shape our politics, as Christians, because it should shape our ethics (the sermon on the mount is a picture of what the life of the king of God’s kingdom looks like; and this prayer is one that king, Jesus, ultimately answers — he also calls us to take up our cross and follow him). Because this should shape our politics, it should also shape our engagement in something like a non-compulsary, non-binding, postal survey about marriage in our nation.

But first, a note on why I’m putting this out there…

Lots of Christian leaders are handing out how to vote advice while saying at the same time they’re not seeking to ‘bind people’s consciences’ (though it appears that means something quite different to people to what I think it means). Their how to vote advice has, so far, exclusively been what to vote advice. I said in a recent post that I wouldn’t be telling people how to vote; but I think I missed an important distinction, I think there are things to be said about how we approach voting as Christians that are potentially good and wise things to put out there; I certainly won’t be telling people in my church what to vote; not from me, not from anybody else.

This sort of advice and its relationship to your conscience gets confusing in different church polity structures; there’s a question of how much a congregation member or attendee needs to be bound by doctrinal positions of a church; and how to understand those doctrinal positions, and how much a ‘how to vote’ approach is consistent with a church’s polity, let alone their theology. Senior figures from the Baptist Church, the Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church have all issued statements consistent with being part of the coalition for marriage; and those statements have different bindingness in both the theology of these churches and the polity they represent. It’s interesting times…

I assume, on any given Sunday, that barely anybody in my congregation knows what ‘Presbyterian’ means when it comes to our governance; they’re with us because they love Jesus and we’re on about Jesus, they come from a variety of backgrounds — whether they’re Iranian asylum seekers, new converts, people who’ve relocated to Brisbane from around Australia or the world looking for churches, or people who’ve grown up Presbyterian who do hold to reformed theology, but love the way it’s the Gospel that gets centre stage in our community; and that we’re able to gather with quite an eclectic bunch where a plurality of theological views are held alongside our unity in Jesus. Plus I assume there’s going to be a bunch of people with us on a Sunday still figuring out how with us they are, and what they think about this Jesus thing. We’re a church that is seeing people decide to follow Jesus from pretty diverse and extreme positions. This means I’m never going to read out an ‘official position’ statement and assume that anybody but I should hold it (if it’s a question of doctrine), and our polity as Presbyterians means we’re able to make this call as a church (led by our senior pastor). This is true for all other Presbyterian Ministers who are ‘moderators’ of their own church gatherings. We do not have bishops. Our committees are not bishops. Our assemblies are not bishops. How we respond to issues and moderate our communities, while holding to the doctrine and oaths we’ve sworn is not quite so simple as it is in a top down form of church government (think Anglican or Catholic).

People want short soundbite advice and easy conclusions; a one page thing to handout in church or chuck on a website; a simple directive… something accessible. I believe that actually becomes unhelpful both in how it helps people to come to their own conclusion based on conscience (ultimately, belief in what is Godly or not); and in how we then participate in a conversation beyond the soundbite. In West Wing terms, for fans, it’s all well and good until somebody says ‘what’s the next ten words’…

I know there are lots of Presbyterians, and lots of people in my congregation, thinking through how to vote (and asking for advice). So here’s my advice on how to vote (different to the last post where I laid out why I’m not telling people what to vote, in my next ‘how to’ post I’ll talk about how to participate in the conversation).  I think you can follow these steps and end up with a variety of positions on the plebiscite; but these are the things I think we should be weighing up. As Christians.

  1. Consider your vote prayerfully.
    Knowing that God isn’t just the creator, but the sustainer of all things — who works through governments for his purposes, even as he hardens the hearts of these governments in judgment, or uses them to promote good and restrain evil. Pray to God for his wisdom, that he would be merciful, and for the sake of your neighbours. Pray that his kingdom might come (you know, the Lord’s Prayer), and then live as though your life is shaped by that prayer. There’s a great irony that this prayer is prayed by our parliament before it sits — I agree with those who say it shouldn’t be; because I don’t think our politicians are in a position to work towards it being answered the way God answers it in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the launch of his kingdom; the church.
  2. Consider your vote knowing that if you’re a Christian, Jesus is your king and you are a citizen of heaven.
    You live as a dual citizen, or a foreigner, whose first allegiance is to Jesus. This is what it looks like to live the Lord’s Prayer — his kingdom coming as you live for Jesus and encourage others to do the same. This doesn’t present issues if you’re a Christian in terms of our Aussie constitution — our government doesn’t recognise this dual citizenship; but you must.
  3. Consider your participation in our democracy carefully.
    Marriage is a big deal. How we engage politically is a big deal. And this is more complicated than an arbitrary black/white view of the world allows. We live in a parliamentary democracy. Consider how parliament should be making decisions for a diverse community. We live in a secular democracy where our constitution says there is no established religion (s116), and we generally consider this a good thing because, for example, it means we’re not a Catholic country, and our head of state is not also the head of a church (though the Queen technically is the head of the Church of England, so, umm…). This stuff — the nature of our political reality — matters more than some voices suggest it does. Different people have different ideas about how democracy functions, and how we should function in it as a Christian; don’t vote blind on this. Consider how you want others treating democracy when it comes to your citizenship, when thinking about how your citizenship should be exercised for their sake too.
  4. Consider your participation as a Christian carefully.
    What does your faith require of you? I’d say we’re people who follow Jesus as king, who live for his kingdom as members of his kingdom, and so we seek to follow his example and his commands. We also want our neighbours to become disciples because that’s the chief good for them. How might our vote (and our conversations around the vote) best serve those ends; not just support a secondary good thing, like marriage, but present and pursue the primary good — people knowing Jesus. Jesus says some very clear things about marriage and how our sexuality is shaped by participation in the kingdom (Matthew 19); but it’s not immediately clear how these words about life in the kingdom apply to our neighbours who aren’t yet citizens of heaven (which, we believe, comes with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit). How might the Lord’s Prayer apply to your vote and actions? What best serves the fulfilment of that prayer being not people living as though they belong to the kingdom when they don’t, but people following Jesus as Lord and King.
  5. Consider your vote in terms of what the Bible says and expects of people who do and don’t worship God
    The Bible pretty much begins with marriage, and it ends with marriage. God makes people and gives us marriage as a way (not the only way) to fulfil his command to be fruitful and multiply. Marriage is part of God’s design for human life (but not essential to being human). It is a good gift from God, and when people, Christian or otherwise, enjoy that good gift in ways close to how God designed it, it’s good for them. Marriage as we know it is never as God designed it. It is frustrated by the curse of sin (specifically in Genesis 3:16). There is no ideal marriage; but we still have a picture of that ideal. The Old Testament tells many stories of marriages that are not ideal amongst God’s people (eg David and Michal, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and his 700 wives), and many that aren’t ideal outside of God’s people (eg Esther and Xerxes), and some that appear to be reasonably beautiful (Ruth and Boaz). The Old Testament operates on the expectation that people who reject God as God and turn to other gods will trash God’s design for humanity and marriage — that we will become dead and breathless, reflecting the images we worship, but also that once that happens the natural order of things will be rapidly eradicated (eg Leviticus 18). It also assumes that God’s relationship to his people is a marriage like relationship — and they become adulterous, cheating, spouses who God patiently waits for. The New Testament contains the life and example of Jesus, and his teachings on marriage, but it also contains a wedding invitation — we’re invited to become ‘the bride of Christ’ — to be God’s faithful people again (to join the love story of the Old Testament); without that story people won’t understand marriage as God designed it; with that story how we approach our marriages (if we’re married) will be shaped by the love of Jesus (Ephesians 5), as will not being married (Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7). Marriage makes sense to us as Christians because of what we believe; can we really expect it to make the same sense to people who choose not to love and worship God (Romans 1, which is a lot like Leviticus 18).
  6. Consider the models of engagement we have with non-Christian (or non-Godly) governments in the Bible
    Lots of our ‘political theology’ in the west was written in the context of governments that had been shaped by, and were supportive of, Christianity. That’s not the scenario we find for ourselves now, so it’s time to channel the Spirit of the protestant reformers and go back to the source material. The Old Testament Prophets had a particular responsibility as the voice of God speaking to Israel’s government (mostly) calling for repentance; there’s not much evidence of these prophets speaking directly to the nations (there’s some in 1-2 Kings). Joseph participates in and supports the regime of the first Pharaoh, Moses becomes a member of the later Pharaoh’s household and uses that position to unsuccessfully make the case for life God’s way; his success depends on God pretty drastically stepping in to rescue his people from deadly slavery. Jonah is probably the best picture of a prophet speaking directly to a government outside of Israel calling them to but we don’t really hear much of the substance of his message (Jonah 3), the whole book seems to serve as a condemnation of Israel for its collective failure to bless the nations the way they should have (Genesis 12), by representing God well (Jonah ends on a downer, him being in the whale is a like exile from God for disobedience). Solomon also had lots of opportunities to share God’s wisdom with the leaders of the nations (in the world of the Old Testament, like in the story of Jonah, if you converted the head of a state to a religious belief, that became the religion of the people). Esther operated from within the courts of a pretty nasty regime, at personal cost, to bring about God’s promises to his people. Daniel and his friends did the same with Nebuchadnezzar who saw himself as a god (idolatry); but they did this in a manner of faithful difference; they didn’t participate in disobedience to God personally, but by serving that regime they were participants in that system without being corrupted. I’ve seen John the Baptist cited as a political model a few times — but he called Israel to repent and be ready for the coming king and kingdom; and challenged Herod, who had set himself up as a pretender to that particular throne — Herod and his old man considered themselves the kings of Israel. Herod sr had tried to exterminate Jesus as a baby because he didn’t want competition. Jesus told us to expect persecution and to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, including from the authorities and promised to give his disciples the words to say when they were on trial (Matt 10); the government of his day executed him (the same government Paul says is used by God for his good purposes and as a servant). Paul appears before governors and kings on route to his trial in Rome; and uses his trials to proclaim the Gospel — when he’s appearing before Festus and Agrippa, Agrippa even says to him ‘are you hoping to convert me’, to which Paul replies:Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” — Acts 25:29Imagine if that was the approach Christians were taking when our positions are put on ‘trial’ in the public square. Recognising that governments (and governors) aren’t Christian; but that we can live with them as Christians seeking the good of our neighbours while being different and using that difference to persuade people to love Jesus. If Joseph, Daniel, Paul, and Jesus are your models for engaging with a non-Christian government (I’m not sure you should marry the king, like Esther did), then that’s probably a good thing; the prophets and John the Baptist adopted a particular stance towards God’s people when they looked indistinguishable from the nations. We might one day need Moses types who call the government to ‘let our people go’ — but we’re not there yet. 
  7. Consider your vote in terms of what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself; and to do for them what you would have them do for you
    This one is where it gets tricky and all the options are still on the table because we have to balance competing goods (and life in a non-ideal world with what the ultimate ideal is). Vote out of love for your neighbour. Weigh up what the complexity of life together throws up at us. Consider your ultimate goal for your neighbours — whoever they are — for Christians our goal for one another is to present others mature in Christ; I suspect that pastoral goal should frame all of our political endeavours, and that our sense of what is good for our Christian brothers and sisters (and ourselves) should shape our love for others and the future we would have for them, which means our political goal should also be evangelistic — in that we should want our neighbours to be open to hearing about Jesus. We don’t love people as a means to that ends though; love is an ends in itself for our ‘political life’.
  8. Consider your participation in democracy as much more than voting
    Politics is not about power but about life together as people. It is about citizenship; not government (that’s what the word means). People in a polis are people who in some sense are joined as citizens. Voting is one way we shape that life together, as we appoint people to govern for us (or make our voices heard), but there is much more to life together than voting, and much more to a good life together than simply not transgressing laws; the good and ethical life is not constrained or limited by our politicians but by something like civility, or neighbouring. Consider what being a good neighbour and citizen might look like here beyond this non-binding, non-compulsary, survey  — and how, perhaps, your participation in the conversation around the survey is more political and will shape your relationships with other citizens and what life together looks like than the vote itself.What would happen if we saw politics first as neighbouring or hospitality and our participation in public conversations first as being an exercise in listening and empathy before in being heard? What would happen if every Christian committed to getting to know at least one individual or couple who are seeking a law change because of their desires (I suspect there’d be a lot less slippery slope arguing and a lot less talking past each other). How might that change your vote? Your process of considering your vote? Your approach to politics? What if before you vote you commit yourself to reaching out to people you know in the LGBTIQA community to find out what they desire and why; to figure out what parts of those desires you can understand, empathise with, and recognise? What if you commit to understanding the best arguments for or against by listening and seeking to understand; not simply proclaiming your vision of the truth by vote or declaration (or Facebook profile picture).
  9. Consider gently and respectfully rejecting the status quo as it is served up to you (this is a democracy after all)
    Accepting that politics is about participating in a vote where there are only two options on the table and the contest is framed as a zero sum game is an unimaginative reinforcing of the status quo. Consider that a plebiscite might run counter to the spirit of our system of democracy (where we elect decision makers to act for all, not just to act according to the opinion polls or the popular vote).
  10. Consider not telling anybody how you’re voting or making this a further point of division between Christians and the world.
    It’s one thing to have a stance, it’s another thing to aggressively campaign in the name of ‘participating in the conversation’ or ‘defending what you believe’; you don’t have to campaign just because people organising a campaign tell you to. You’ll inevitably defend a position against somebody who holds that position rather than finding some sort of common ground or different solution. What is gained by publicly taking a stance? I recognise you might think this is ironic given my recent post about abstaining; but I publicly did not take a stance (or took no stance) in response to a call from other Christian leaders suggesting that not only should we take a public stance; but we should be compelled to publicly take a particular stance.
  11. Consider that our best political statement as Christians is Jesus; that praying and living ‘your kingdom come’ and proclaiming the kingdom is political; and allows our words and marriages to be political in a different sense.We Christians have made the mistake of allowing our view to be defined as the ‘no case’ for same sex marriage rather than the ‘yes case’ for Jesus and what he says about marriage, sex, and love. Getting people to love Jesus more than the idea of marriage is the most profound political change we can be part of in our society; it’s also God’s political mission. There’s lots we can say about marriage that is tied to the Gospel; Paul says that marriage is a ‘mystery’ in how it reflects the relationship between Jesus and the Church, so that to speak of one is ultimately to speak of the other; you wouldn’t know that hearing Christian voices in the public square making the ‘no case’ — our challenge, at the water cooler, online, in our marriages, and as we participate in political life (and this conversation about marriage); is to have our dual citizenship on show; to live ‘your kingdom come’; to love our neighbours by pointing them to the marriage proposal we have on the table from God, and to have those we engage with echo the words of Agrippa:”Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

    And our answer be: I pray it’s so, such is my love for you.

What I want people to know about marriage and the plebiscite…

What I believe about marriage

I’m a Christian.

This means I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s king (Christ just means ‘king’). It means I believe in a God who made the world, who made us, who loves us enough to send Jesus to die for us to not just connect us to the life God made us for, or pay the price for our failure to live that life, but to bring us a new sort of life altogether; eternal life. I believe the God who made the world and us actually has something to say about the ideal human life. The Bible opens with the story of God making us as his ‘image bearers’ in the world — representatives of the nature and character of God, and shows that his plan for humanity involves us ‘being fruitful and multiplying’ — in the next part of the story he puts people in a garden filled with beautiful things to do and eat. It’s legitimate to take this ‘fruity’ picture of human life and talk about what, for people who believe in the Bible, a ‘flourishing’ or good and fruitful life looks like.

The God in the Bible’s first chapters is good, and loving, and hospitable. We are to be like him. There’s another complex and mind blowingly good thing about the Christian God; the Christian God is triune, a God of relationship because the nature of God is relational — father, son and Spirit. When this God makes humankind, God says ‘let us make man in our image’ — the ‘us’ and ‘our’ are plural; and then we’re told he makes us male and female; different and equal, different and necessary in this job of being like God. We see something of God’s nature and image when his image bearers relate together in intimate love. Our culture believes intimacy is just about sex, but the Bible doesn’t say all intimacy is sexual, it does, however, then picture sexuality and marriage — between men and women — as part of what a flourishing life might look like. I’d say that intimate relationships with others are an essential part of bearing God’s image, and marriage between a man and a woman is a form of that; another form is family, so when the story of the Bible introduces marriage as a foundational and good-for-flourishing relationship, it says this:

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”

 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

This is what Christians believe marriage is — two different image bearers (man and woman) — joining together to express a particular sort of oneness, or intimacy, through sex (a joining of flesh) and a ‘communion’ or commitment to unity. Like God’s inter-triune love spills out to produce the creation of the world and humanity, this marriage relationship can produce a particular sort of fruit; the ‘multiplication’ Genesis 1 talks about — children. It creates families as a context for more love and intimacy. In an ideal world. The world doesn’t stay ideal for very long in the Bible’s story, in the next few sentences in the Bible this first marriage almost falls apart, and the love and intimacy pictured initially fades away, or is shattered, by self interest.

Christians believe this picture of marriage and intimacy is God’s design for all people; for the good and fruitful life. If we were able to achieve it, and as much as we are able to achieve it, the outcomes are better than alternative options. We believe it is good for people who don’t believe in God even if they don’t believe it is; and so that it can be loving to encourage people to see marriage the way it is created by God. This is complicated in a world where belief in God is contested, and where there are other understandings of what marriage is. It’s also complicated in a world where there is so much wrong with us, and with marriage, that this ideal almost never seems to happen; even in good marriages; those marriages are affected by our selfishness so that they aren’t ‘perfect harmonious unions’ or ‘perfect intimacy’. So we can’t argue for an ideal that is impossible to achieve, but nor should we ignore this ideal in thinking about what a good or flourishing life looks like.

When we get things wrong in this world it’s an expression of what happens in the next part of the story — sin — our rejection of God’s plan for human flourishing, and our pursuit of our own. It’s interesting that this attempt to redefine flourishing also involves fruit; and the rejection of God’s hospitable plan for a flourishing life.

For Christians, our goal is to pursue relationships that reflect who we were made to be, life and love reflecting the character of God. Our marriages are part of that, but not all of that… we also have a ‘church family’ that we belong to; brothers and sisters not just of flesh and blood, but people adopted into God’s family. We’re used to family structures that are bigger than just the biological, and understand that children are often raised in the context of a village or community far beyond just these biological family units. That’s what it looks like when we use our marriages and families for the overflowing of love, intimacy (beyond sex), and hospitality.

We can’t really do this getting back to the created ideal, we believe, on our own steam. Our hearts and loves are so disordered by our attempts to build fruitful or flourishing lives that we naturally put all sorts of things in the place God is meant to occupy in our hearts, minds, and devotion. We put money first. Or sex first. Or marriage first. Or the success of our nuclear family first. All these things are good things, but when our sin, our selfishness, leads us to put these things first we are both putting God out of his place, and distorting the way we live around our love for these things. An example of this would be where valuing my nuclear family might stop me hospitably loving those in need, or where valuing money above my family might turn me into a miser who doesn’t treat my children generously or kindly; we all have a hierarchy of loves; and if we put anything other than God at the top of that hierarchy, that thing becomes our god, and rules our other loves. We all understand the ‘flourishing’ life based on what we put in this God slot. The Bible says that just like in this first story in the Bible, when we reject God and pursue flourishing apart from him — he gives us what we want — life apart from him, which actually means death, because he is the source of life. The Bible pictures this as exile from God, or estrangement, or divorce. A breaking of intimacy. This is what Christians mean when we talk about sin earning judgment from God — he lovingly gives us what we ask for, we just don’t always realise we’re asking for death. And we miss that God wants our good, and that his ways are best for us, and that there’s actually harm and destruction involved in choosing to love things other than him.

The Old Testament frames life in this world in this way; we can pursue fruitfulness by choosing the living God, and be given the goodness of eternal life in him, or we can pursue fruitfulness apart from him and choose to love, or worship, dead, breathless, things and so die. These things are good things God has made — like marriage — but if we make them ultimate things we die. Over and over again it becomes clear that we can’t actually choose life by default; that we need God to intervene and change our loves by reclaiming them; the Old Testament is the story of humanity waiting for God to re-order our loves by his Spirit; it’s us waiting for the image of God in all of us to be rediscovered and re-breathed into, because we humans become the image of dead gods as we pursue them.

Now. This all seems a long way from the conversation about marriage; so let’s head back that way.

God, in the Old Testament, is depicted as a scorned spouse; a divorcee, who waits patiently for his ex — us — to stop playing the field, loving all sorts of things or partners, that aren’t our spouse, who waits with the offer that we might come home to the one who truly loves and is good for us; but doesn’t just wait passively. God sets out to bring us back by sending Jesus — a person of the Trinity — into the world to invite us back. We humans, generally, don’t think much of that offer, we like playing the field; so we killed Jesus. We mostly scorned his offer. We mostly choose to keep doing our own thing; but some of us — Christians — take it up. We re-enter the intimate relationship with God that we were made for. And this intimate relationship shapes how we understand our other intimate relationships; including marriage and family. We start pursuing God’s pattern for life again. We start ordering our sexual love and where we seek intimacy around God’s design for flourishing.

Now. I’m a Christian, as I said, which means I love Jesus. I love Jesus more than I love my wife. I love God too, but there’s something particular about a Christian’s relationship to Jesus. I love Jesus, and Jesus is a man, and I’m a man… the Bible even pictures the Christian’s love for Jesus (brought about by an intimate relationship where God dwells in us and makes us one with the Trinity by the Spirit, ‘uniting us to Christ’) as a marriage; the church is often called ‘the bride of Christ’. For some churches, especially the Catholic Church, marriage is a sacrament; something that reveals something deep, and true, and real, about our relationship with God. This is even part of why the Catholics practice celibacy for nuns and priests. I’m not Catholic, I don’t think marriage is a sacrament because I don’t think all people should (or can) participate in marriage. But I do believe marriage is a picture of the Gospel and the oneness it creates; it’s something beautiful for Christians because of this symbolism, and this symbolism is to shape the way we approach marriages as Christians (Ephesians 5:21-33). I believe, as a Christian, that how I understand marriage, and how I either participate in marriage, or don’t, is a product of who God is (and who I am, a sinful and broken image bearer being transformed by God’s Spirit). I don’t believe that Christian marriages are ideal, or never end in divorce, or never feature sinful behaviour; but I do believe Christians approach marriage by putting God first, and loving Jesus such that our ‘marriage’ to him is our ultimate reality. Jesus puts it this way when he is asked about marriage by people trying to figure out how it works in a broken world. They’re actually asking about divorce, and how that works, but he answers them by going all the way back to the beginning of the story, and God’s design for marriage:

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” — Matthew 19:4-6

As his answer continues, Jesus makes a bold claim that how we approach marriage, and sex (our loves for things and people God has made that reveal something about the nature of God) — how we approach the ‘flourishing life’, actually begins with how we understand our relationship with him as our loving king, and how we understand life in his kingdom. He says:

“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” — Matthew 19:11-12

There are three things to notice here:

  1. Jesus knows this teaching is hard and some won’t accept it.
  2. Jesus says some are born ‘eunuchs’ — eunuchs were unable to be married or have sex, typically because they had been castrated so they could be ‘safely’ around a powerful person’s collection of wives (a horrible practice); but Jesus says some are born in such a way that marriage as God has designed it is not for them.
  3. Jesus says some will choose to live as eunuchs — without sex and marriage — ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’
  4. Jesus repeats that this teaching is for ‘the one who can accept it’ and that if they can they should.

Jesus is saying that our human flourishing; our need for intimacy, might first be found in the kingdom of heaven, and that this will, for some people, shape how we participate (or don’t) in marriage and family. There are many Christians who are same sex attracted, or single, who practice this teaching by not marrying and being celibate. If this meant ‘no intimacy’ that would be destructive for human flourishing; intimacy (apart from sex) instead needs to be found in the context of family; I think it’s reasonable in the first century to see this as taking place in being adopted into a household (the church, and the way it gathered as family), but it probably also comes with the adoption of children within that family, and a role with them. This has interesting implications for how we, the church, might accommodate families built around a same sex union where those parents choose to follow Jesus, and so redefine their family life around his teaching about sex, marriage, and intimacy.

Because I believe all this, I’m very happy to affirm the Presbyterian Church’s doctrinal position on marriage, before the plebiscite, and after it, no matter what the result is. This is what I believe marriage is, and the basis on which I will conduct marriages as a minister, and seek to have those marriages recognised by the government of Australia:

“the life-long union of one man with one woman, voluntarily entered into, excluding all others.”

I believe this is what marriage is. Unequivocally. I also believe that a good and flourishing life involves seeing marriage this way, and either entering or not entering one on that basis. I believe marriage, defined this way, is the best definition of marriage for my society and my neighbours.

But (the limits of my belief in a democracy).

I don’t think the plebiscite is asking “what is your definition of marriage” or “how do you understand marriage” but “what should the definition of marriage be in Australia”. I believe these are different questions (as I’ve been trying to spell out in previous conversations). While I understand the logic of people who agree with me on the definition of marriage in wanting to see that definition upheld as long as possible, and find it compelling, I also believe there are limits to how far this definition can and will extend.

I believe these limits are, in some ways, actually God-given, as a result of our departure from his plan for a flourishing life (as cultures, not just individuals); and our decision to have common gods, or idols, that shape our society and our understanding of the good and flourishing life in community.

I believe this makes this marriage debate more complicated than the plebiscite and this discussion allows it to be, and think we should have a much more sophisticated conversation, with better solutions than those that are currently on the table (one might be for the government to stop defining marriage altogether, and to just offer ‘registered relationships’, another would be to have an inclusive definition of marriage with very robust freedom of religion laws that go beyond simply protecting celebrants). This is why I don’t think there’s a clear cut binding case for Christians (or Presbyterians) to vote no in the plebiscite campaign, or persuade others to do so, while holding to the definition of marriage above.

There are five important things to notice.

  1. I am a Christian.
  2. I believe marriage is defined this way, and that it is built into a good life in this world, because I am a Christian and believe God made the world.
  3. Many of my neighbours are not Christians.
  4. Some of my neighbours identify as Christians and have a different understanding of marriage.
  5. Australia is a democracy.

I love my neighbours, and one of the ways I think I’m to do this is to participate well in the democracy (I don’t buy that participating well means accepting the status quo for participation established via special interests, or a winner takes all approach to power and discourse; I don’t believe it is limited to casting a vote). Here’s how this love shapes my thinking about this debate.

  • Because I love my neighbours and want them to flourish I would like them to become Christians; to meet Jesus and find God’s pattern for a flourishing life.
  • Because I love my neighbours I also want them to be free to pursue life in the same way that God wants them to; to choose life in God, and its consequences, or to choose life apart from God and its consequences. I want to make the case for the former, but I want to accept and protect the right for them to do the latter, even if that means they adopt different meanings for words and institutions as a result.
  • Because Australia is a democracy, I think it should accommodate this free pursuit, and my ability to make the case for a flourishing life being found in God’s design, including his design for marriage (and the corollary that life apart from God is not a flourishing life at all). You might think this case hangs on the plebiscite result; I’m looking beyond it. If you think the plebiscite is the be all and end all, then you should definitely vote no and campaign accordingly.
  • Because Australia is a democracy I believe other people should have a say in, and be represented in, the laws of Australia. Just as I should, and I hope my views might be accommodated still beyond marriage redefinition.
  • Because Australia is a democracy, and we all have the ability to have a say in how our society operates, and what the law does and doesn’t recognise, we should all speak, converse, vote, and live according to our consciences and our freedom; balancing this with the freedoms of others, and seeking their good (I can see how this can lead to a no vote, a yes vote, or a not voting approach to the plebiscite).

Here’s some other bits and pieces to throw in the mix of this conversation.

I believe that it is presently true that all Australians can enter into a marriage as God defines it for Christians, and as the law currently defines it; there have been and continue to be, many same sex attracted people entering opposite orientation marriages. My sister is married to my brother in law, who is same sex attracted.

I believe that it’s at least partly evident that what we’re being asked for is to change the fundamental definition of marriage (and that it’s not about love at all), and that this is clear because we have to qualify the word to talk about the campaign ‘same sex marriage’; some people calling for a changed definition have noticed this and started saying ‘or as I prefer to call it ‘just marriage’… it’s not bigotry to point this out, and to ask what might be at stake in the change; but nor is that we’re changing the definition of a word or institution a knockdown argument. We do that all the time, for very good reasons (and sometimes for bad reasons).

The best argument for same sex marriage

I hear many gay neighbours — those who are strangers and friends — asking for the definition of marriage to change because they believe they should have the right to pursue a flourishing life as they see fit; which includes changing the definition of the word marriage to incorporate their life long commitment to another, at the exclusion of all others. This is, I think, compelling in the context of a secular democracy where no religious view is given priority.

I don’t believe ‘love is love’ is actually the best argument for marriage redefinition, marriage equality, or same sex marriage. I don’t buy the argument that sex is love (or that it necessarily involves, or is involved in, intimacy). I believe it’s that for a gay couple to flourish as best as they can within their understanding of the good life in this world, a relationship of commitment, love, and intimacy, is, without God, better for them than alternatives. And, because gay couples can already adopt, birth, and raise children, I believe this sort of relationship provides more stability for children than alternatives (just as this is true for marriages that are not Christian marriages). I don’t believe these marriages are God’s ideal (or marriage at all, in God’s sight, or the sight of the church), but I am able to hold my (God’s) definition of marriage while recognising that other people can and will define marriage differently. That must surely be how Christians in nations where marriage has been redefined operate? And how we must operate beyond the plebiscite if marriage is then redefined at law in Australia. I don’t see this as involving cognitive dissonance, or cheapening my own definition or marriage just because the meaning of the word now being contested.

I believe it is important to listen well, and with empathy, to our gay neighbours, and to understand what they seek and why our best arguments for marriage don’t convince them. I believe it has been a mistake for Christian leaders to ignore the human rights arguments for marriage because we think human rights are either conferred by the God our neighbours don’t believe in, are non-existent, or must be universal. It means that there is some emotional weight to the argument that we are this century’s racists or bigots. We’ve utterly failed to engage with this argument in a compelling way because we’ve tended to simply deny its weight, or we’ve jumped straight to the important question of competing rights without acknowledging the strength of the argument (on the basis of human flourishing and ‘the good’ and that being derived from a competing view of the world).

What about the rights of the child and ‘normalisation’ of ‘genderless parenting’

Some people believe that our duty as Christians is to help the government ‘restrain evil’ or maximise morality, through our vote (I’d say that’s one way to do it, but it’s limited). This sounds nice in an ideal world where there’s a clear line between black and white. They use this line of argument to say that a Christian must oppose same sex marriage not so much because of the freedom of the people entering the marriage, but for the rights of the children. Life in this world — a world that isn’t ideal, but is broken by sin — is complicated, and a good life involves balancing non ideal options while pursuing virtue out of love for others. Here’s a little example of a conundrum; Christians are rightly heartbroken by abortion, we see it as a fundamentally unrelated question to the question of same sex marriage, but it isn’t. Everything is connected. One of the solutions for minimising abortion must surely be to allow more imaginative options for a woman fearing the results of an unwanted pregnancy; including, as many Christians have suggested, better adoption laws. Now. We say children should have a right to know their biological parents; but that’s not the same as saying they should not be adopted, because we’d say in this other circumstance that adoption is better than abortion. That creates a quandary though when it comes to same sex adoption, doesn’t it? Life is complicated; ethics are often about retrieving good, and restraining evil, is it better, for those opposing same sex marriage through the children’s rights prism, for those children to be adopted or aborted? Idealism can make for some pretty messed up politics; our world is a world of competing goods, competing evils, and imaginative solutions. Wisdom is about charting a course between these competing rights, wrongs, and contested rights and contested wrongs.

Human rights can, I think, be conferred within a particular community by the decision of that community, in response to the desires of people within that community. I do believe that the rights of children are important, and that in an ideal world a child would know their biological family (and they should have a right to know) — but also that family is bigger than biology (and the suggestion that it isn’t is relatively modern and western; for example, adoption in Rome made parentage a very interesting thing, and part of the early church growing as rapidly as it did was their practice of adopting and caring for abandoned and unwanted children, in part because our doctrine of adoption into God’s family as co-heirs with Christ makes that a really big deal). I don’t believe we operate in an ideal world, or a Christian one, but a world where ideas are contested and in some sense this contest should, wherever possible, involve contradictory ideas co-existing through a commitment to charity and empathy.

Now, let’s for a moment take off the political hat and put on the pastoral and evangelistic hat we should be wearing as the church; the Gospel hat. How will our words here and now be heard by the same sex families that already exist? Let alone the future ones? How will our statements about absolutes and ideals and good and evil (disconnected from the Gospel and its power to re-order our loves) be heard by these families, who are already vulnerable because they fall outside social norms (there’s a reason people in our community think we need Safe Schools, and it’s not that Christians have an exclusive run on bigotry/hatred of people outside the norm). How might we speak about these families in a way that supports them and invites them to see us as an ally in loving them and their kids in a world where there is no ideal? I want gay families to come to my church. I want them to be loved by us. I want them to hear of God’s love for them and decide together what impact that will have on their life together, and I want our church families to be geared towards intimacy enough that these families can continue to love each other, be committed to each other, be involved in the lives of the children they’ve committed to, but also pursue a flourishing life of faith in Jesus. This isn’t helped when Christians publicly suggest we’re creating a stolen generation or the ‘commodification of children’.

My biggest concerns

Let’s go back to my first paragraph. I’m a Christian. I think God is real and good and loving. And the best life is found in loving him. Not in sex. Not in marriage. Not in human family and having and raising children (though these are all good things). I don’t want to spend the next few weeks (or years) trying to tell people why they should see marriage the way I see it without also, or first, inviting people to see the world the way I see it; to see the goodness of God’s design for our humanity, for intimacy, and for love. To see that a life lived with God at the centre, following Jesus, is a better, more beautiful, and more presently and eternally satisfying life — so much so that we can change or give up other loves, and approach other good gifts of God differently to our neighbours.

I want my neighbours to understand how marriage operates in the lives of Christians who believe the stuff I’ve written above; that it is special and important and good for humanity. I want Christians to work hard at building marriage relationships, families, and intimacy beyond sex, in such a way that our way of life is compelling and definitively and persuasively ‘more flourishing’ than the alternatives. As I participate in this particular conversation I want it to be the top half of this post that is my consistent contribution to the conversation, it’s having that view accommodated that is my goal in a democracy (not having it squish all other views). I want to listen more than I speak. I want people to understand that love and intimacy in marriage is good, but love and intimacy in Jesus and his church is better (I want to build the church so it actually is better too). And that they’re fundamentally connected — that marriage is a metaphor for the bigger and richer reality of connection to God.

Here’s an interesting thing; McCrindle Research indicates that a growing percentage of Aussies know very few Christians in real life; some people are unable to empathise with our cold ‘rational’ arguments because they have no emotional/relational context to see or hear them in. You want to persuade people about Christian marriage and family — invite them into your home; but I reckon there’s a corollary. I think part of our tone deafness on this when it comes to the trenches, is that so many Christians have no deep relationships with gay people or couples. We’re not able to feel the strength of their emotional or coherently rational (without God) arguments, because we have no emotional/relational context to hear them, and when we do hear them it’s in the context of a fight where we’re just seeking to defend our patch.

We’re not even great at accommodating same sex attracted people in our churches and providing non-sexual intimacy, and non-biological family, in our church culture. How many of us have shared meals with gay friends in our homes, or even on our streets? How many of us are listening to reports from vulnerable gay people about what this plebiscite feels like for them? How quick are we to dismiss those emotions and hurts as valid data in an ‘evidence based’ democracy? How many of us are prepared to question the status quo of democracy in this country and whether a zero-sum game built around a non-binding vote following a public conversation where we hurl invective at each other is the best way to make decisions for the good of all? To participate in our democracy according to this status quo is to reinforce it… yet saying you’re not going to participate in a non-binding plebiscite creates the assumption you’re not doing your duty or participating in our shared life.

I believe the best thing for my gay neighbours — before or after they marry, if they marry or not — is loving Jesus. That marriage. I don’t want to be asking or answering ‘how does the church fight the gay marriage culture war’, but ‘how do we help our neighbours discover the love and intimacy of God and his people in a way that makes us wonder if sex and marriage are actually the ultimate thing to build our life around.

I want to be asking, talking, and pondering questions like: ‘how do we be a church that gay families come into, where they meet Jesus in such a way that it radically rearranges their lives’ in the same way I want to be asking ‘how do we be a church that straight families come into, where they meet Jesus in such a way that it radically rearranges their lives’ — at the moment our tone deaf, un-empathetic, approach to the marriage debate means I don’t think we need to worry too much about those questions; there’s very little chance that, apart from a miraculous work of God, these families are going to check Jesus out at all; we’re hardening hearts towards Jesus, rather than softening them. I say this appreciating the paradox that somehow it is always a miracle for someone to move from death to life as the Spirit works in us, and that it is God who softens and hardens hearts; I think God delights in doing this through soft-hearted people though.

A political theology (outlined): Or ‘why I’m not advocating Christians say nothing about politics’

Well. I’ve certainly learned my lesson. I will not be posting short posts very much anymore. They take far more time than long ones… I’ve also learned that when you leave things unsaid people will make all sorts of assumptions about what you are saying. So let me clear this up. Because this objection is the one that irks me most. People making this accusation may not be aware that I’ve consistently written about how to participate in our democracy, and spoken out about many issues, from the framework I’m advocating, but this framework does also keep evolving so this post might serve to outline some more of what I’m actually arguing for.

Allow me to introduce you to what is a growing body of work about how Christians engage in the public sphere, as Christians, and a growing conviction that pluralism is part of the picture when it comes to life in a democracy. Then. To clear things up a bit further; in my next post I’ll demonstrate how speaking into the marriage debate (while abstaining from voting in the plebiscite) is possible by actually doing it (again), according to what I believe is a consistent application of this model.

I’ll do another numbered list; with links to posts and short summary statements.

  1. Any ‘political theology’ begins with a theological anthropology. An understanding of what it means to be human (because politics is about being human together). My anthropology is built around the idea that all people are made in the image of God to worship, glorify, and represent him; but that the distorting effect of sin is that we worship idols, represent them, and are conformed into their image. The image of God remains in us so long as we draw breath (because that we live and breathe is part of what distinguishes us from idols); but we work to eradicate it, apart from God, until death when we finally become ‘breathless’ like the things we worship. We are worshippers. This, more than any other thing, is what separates humans from animals and actually underpins all the other differences and distinctives of our humanity (that we tell stories, that we imagine, that we make things, that we love etc).
  2. I believe that being made in the image of God is not a thing we do as individuals; that when God says ‘let us make man in our image’ and then he makes us ‘male and female’ it indicates that image bearing is something we do in community. Here’s a great quote from a journal article by Brendon Benz titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom’:

    “Genesis 1 indicates that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God…The implication of this requirement is that an individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation”

    This is a big claim, but I think borne out by Genesis 2 and the declaration that unlike the rest of creation in its completion, ‘it is not good’ for Adam to be alone… This means that image bearing is itself essentially ‘political’ if politics is the ‘organisation of life together’.

  3. Any Christian political theology, and any ‘Christian’ engagement with the public sphere/politics, is built around an underlying conviction that Jesus is Lord, and life following him is life as a member of his kingdom. The Gospel is inherently political in that it creates a kingdom (a polis), and revolves around serving a king.
  4. The Gospel is a political message centred on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The crucifixion shapes our manner such that living as a citizen of the kingdom of God requires a certain commitment to the message of the crucifixion, and a posture of cruciformity. God’s strength is not found in political clout, but in weakness; in us embodying the Gospel as a community, and this is what it looks like for us to represent God by being conformed into the image of Jesus (this is, essentially, the subject of my masters thesis, with some of point 1)
  5. When I say I’m not interested in contributing to political discussion ‘apart from the Gospel’ as I did in my plebiscite post; I do not, and never have, meant we should speak ‘just the Gospel’ in a sort of emphasis on individual salvation through the cross, or say nothing (I don’t think that’s what the Gospel is, I think salvation is an implication of the Gospel, which instead, is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and king, and an invitation to join his kingdom through his victory over sin and death at the cross and in his resurrection, and then to follow his example by the Spirit… Instead, I mean we must ground our positions in the goodness of God revealed in Jesus, and in his Lordship of our lives (and our belief that he is Lord of all and the source of the good, or flourishing, life for all people). When I say ‘apart from the Gospel’ I mean I’m not interested in public Christianity that comes from an anthropology that thinks natural law arguments will be enough to reason people into righteousness, or approaches the secular democracy we live in as though we must only make ‘secular’ arguments. When I say ‘the Gospel’ I include the invitation to turn to Jesus (away from sin), and the implication of not doing that (God’s judgment now — a less good life according to his design for life — and the trajectory towards death, not life, this puts people on).
     
  6. Because the Gospel is political and shapes the way we live in public as citizens of God’s kingdom, and of the place we live as embodied image bearers, there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide; and the modern idea that faith is a private matter does not line up with our understanding of faith in Jesus. The idea that faith is private has reinforced a divide between the sacred and the secular in the minds of our politicians and media, which means that, for example, religious protections will almost certainly be offered to clergy around same sex marriage, but nobody else. One way to keep addressing this is to keep participating in public political debate as Christians not as ‘secular citizens.’ But that means point 4 and 5 are important and essential elements of our contributions.
  7. I believe, as Christians, we have legitimate insight into what the good and flourishing life looks like for our neighbours; but that this is always connected with the good and abundant life secured for us by Jesus; the call to rediscover our humanity as it was made to be through Jesus, and the renovation of our humanity that comes through the indwelling of the Spirit. I believe the goodness of God and his love for us reorders our loves of the things he has made, and it is this reordering that makes the Gospel truly good news for people who have rejected his design and worshipped created things instead. We should speak of that flourishing, but always in connection to its real source, and always as an invitation and an appeal to be recognised as participants in our shared life, as good neighbours.
  8. Our democracy is not Christian, it is secular. The constitution ensures that in a way that is protective for Christians and other religious groups. I believe that for those of us in confessionally reformed churches this presents a challenge because I don’t believe the Westmintser Confession of Faith anticipates this sort of construction when talking about the Civil magistrate (nor do I think it adequately assesses the nature of the state as Paul writes Romans 13). One of Charles Taylor’s insights in A Secular Age that is relevant here is that now all ideas on the ‘good life’ are contested and driven by a question of what place a ‘super-natural’ reality has in decisions about ‘material reality.’ We have to take on board that most of our neighbours have totally different, coherent, and wrong, visions of the good life, arrived at via a worship decision they have made (that God has confirmed in them — Romans 1), not just reason. I believe this means we should adopt a position that sees one of humanity’s chief goods being freedom to rediscover our ‘chief end’ — via freedom to worship — and we should extend that freedom to others (all human identities are constructed around worship). This means pursuing a sort of pluralism, rather than monotheism (trying to act as if everybody is Christian, or not), or polytheism (trying to act as though all views are true and able to be synthesised). This means when it comes to ‘identity politics’ or a ‘politics of recognition’ or a ‘pursuit of authenticity and finding our true selves’ we need to recognise that Jesus provides these things for us, but without Jesus people are left looking for these things elsewhere.
  9. I believe it is increasingly apparent that we Christians are exiles in the secular west, and not running the show (or even close to running the show), and to assume anything that looks like Christendom or that Australia has ‘judeo Christian values’ is to fundamentally misunderstand the Australian narrative apart from the ‘establishment’ story of the colonists/upper class; it misses the egalitarianism at the heart of the Aussie identity and that most people think the church has done more harm than good in Aussie life (especially in the light of the royal commission). I think part of a political theology involves reflecting on our position in society (to use the table metaphor ‘how far from the head we are’). We’re not at the head, we’re close to not even being invited anymore. The census data confirms this trajectory (the McCrindle Research on faith and belief in Australia even more so), and should give us a sense that we need to rethink how we be the church. This means freedom for religion is a luxury, and that our great temptation will be to take the ‘carrot’ of liberalism to avoid the stick. The answer here is perhaps to offer ‘pluralism’ generously to all.
  10. I believe that we aren’t just exiles who are faithful on many things and fighting a battle on sex, but exiles whose imaginations, narratives, practices, loves and lives have already been conscripted by ‘Babylon’ and sexuality is just the last (or only) place we’re resisting. We need to rediscover an urge to be different when it comes to money, the economy, the environment; and rediscover how our anthropology and creation story shape a way of life in the world that is different to the lives lived by those with other stories and visions of the good life. And consistency in these other areas would lend potency to our attempts to be different when it comes to sex and marriage.
  11. I believe faithful theology existed before Luther and the Reformation, and our best guides for a political theology in exile post-christendom comes from pre-christendom (and to some extent from Augustine, who’s ‘early Christendom’ — as in a little after Constantine). The apologies of Tertullian and Justyn Martyr, the Epistle to Diognetus, those insights from ancient texts about what it looks like to be the church in a hostile world trying to carve out space for ourselves for the good of our neighbours.
  12. One of the implications of this pluralism, and the command to love our neighbours and ‘do unto others’ is not just the idea of reciprocity (that would be ‘treat others as they treat you’) but generosity (‘treat others as you would have them treat you’). We don’t act the way we do because we expect others to respond by treating us the same way; but because we believe it is the right thing to do. I believe this means when it comes to issues like same sex marriage and religious freedom for baker and florists we might have to consider ‘third way’ options like helping Christians in those industries do imaginative things like saying yes to a request for service, especially when it feels like a trap, but refusing to profit; that hospitality of the other becomes our strategy (and a form of ‘turning the other cheek’).
  13. I believe, for example, the Australian Christian Lobby’s strategy and participation in the political process fails several of these points. They fail point 3 both in content and manner. They operate from a different theological anthropology, secondly, they operate from a different political strategy (not cruciformity but the wielding of the power of the Christian constituency) in a way that distorts democracy (I think we should advocate, rather than lobby, and that ‘lobbying’ is inherently coercive and involves attempting to take more than our fair share of the democratic pie), and I believe they’ve bought into an unhelpful understanding of a secular democracy which means they deliberately exclude religious arguments. I believe many of us Christians take our lead on political engagement from the ACL (and thus adopt their political theology), and I respect the people involved, but I believe they are wrong. I believe this model has become the strategy of the official organisations responsible for the ‘no campaign’; and this is part of what sees us forming a broad coalition with other advocates of natural law (including muslim religious leaders).
  14. I believe Christians should participate in our democracy with imagination, that we should not feel bound by the status quo or binary options tabled by people who see politics as a zero sum game of winners and losers. That this is part of pursuing Christian wisdom. I believe part of this will require Christians deciding whether or not their job is to ‘dirty their hands’ by getting into the muck of the political process (and compromise, perhaps joining a party), to keep their hands clean (standing apart from the process and speaking as an objective ‘conscience’), or being busy building ‘political institutions’ that operate apart from the government. Abstaining from the vote on the plebiscite is a form of maintaining clean hands.
  15. I believe participation in democracy extends a long way beyond just voting, or even just letter writing, that often when we call for change we should be prepared to carry the cost of that change. We shouldn’t pursue free speech but costly speech; recognising that we are embodied democractic actors not just voices. So; calling for changes to abortion laws means being willing to adopt babies into our homes and communities, and speaking out about asylum seekers means being willing to house them and support them. Participating in democracy is not about free speech or an easy vote; it’s about carrying the cost of our positions as we love our neighbours as Jesus loved us; this extends to letter writing too.
  16. I believe a generous pluralism involves seeing civic life as a ‘shared table’ where we practice hospitality when we’re the host, and recognise that we often are not. I believe both wisdom and hospitality require the hard work of empathising and listening to others we disagree with, and attempting to understand the desires, motivations, language, and categories they are using; so that we are engaging in dialogue rather than simply proclaiming our position (see Colossians 4, and Paul in Athens). I love this bit from the Benz essay cited above:

    “in 1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for “a listening heart (lēḇ šōmēaʿ) in order to judge your people and to discern between good and evil” (v 9). After expressing pleasure with this request, God identifies Solomon’s “listening heart” as a “wise heart” (lēḇ ḥāḵām; v 12). Read in parallel, these two statements indicate that wisdom is predicated on the capacity to listen (see Prov 1:5, 8; 12:15; 18:15; 19:20). Thus, wisdom demands a partner—one who is willing to speak, and at the same time, one who is willing to give ear. The result of this corporate engagement is the ability to discern between good and evil, and thereby administer justice.”

  17. I believe one of the most political things we can do is build the church as a ‘political institution’; an alternative polis, that lives and proclaims the Gospel. That we have to think of the church as more than a Sunday event, and instead see it as the community of believers who are representatives of the Kingdom of God in a particular place, living and proclaiming the Gospel — including showing how it connects to public issues of the day and is genuinely good news.
  18. I believe we should be cultivating a faithful presence where we present the truth and beauty of the Gospel as an alternative (and prophetic) voice in the public square, not one that seeks to dominate and drown out other voices, and that this means it is possible to faithfully articulate our position on things (and on the sinfulness of our culture and laws), without calling for our view to be implemented for all (and rather politely requesting that it be accommodated). I believe there are examples of this in Daniel in Babylon (an idolatrous regime), and Erastus in Rome (an idolatrous regime); and that we can simultaneously serve idolatrous and God-hating rulers who make awful laws (that order people to bend the knee, or crucify Jesus in Rome’s case), submit to their authority to punish us for rejecting their idolatry (eg not bending the knee, going to the cross), and that the Gospel works most powerfully in those moments.
  19. I believe it is possible to not ‘oppose sin’ without ‘affirming sin’ (and we manage it with most legislation around banking and the environment that seems to be predicated on greed), and even to be in ‘favour’ of legislation that enables pluralism in our secular democracy (in much the same way that I think we should support the building of mosques). If I affirm the building of a mosque I am, in Christian theology, enabling sin every bit as much as if I am ‘in favour of same sex marriage in a democracy’, but also, I believe, every bit as much as God enables sin in Romans 1, and as the father ‘enables the sin’ of the prodigal son by giving him his inheritance when the son basically wishes the father was dead (a picture of humanity’s rejection of God).
  20. I believe we can expect persecution to increase at some point; but that the best way to respond to cultural marxism or an aggressive anti-Christian agenda is to ‘treat others as we would have them treat us’ and to build strong mediating ‘pre-political’ institutions (the church, but also businesses etc) using our imagination and understanding of the human condition. Again, this is not to avoid persecution, I don’t believe the ‘golden rule’ will have us avoid persecution, but will vindicate us in the eyes of some when we are persecuted; and that doing right in the face of opposition, trusting that God will judge, will ‘heap burning coals’ on the heads of those who persecute us as we live faithfully and do what is right (Romans 12). I believe we should attempt a generous pluralism even if our opponents want to practice an aggressive and idolatrous monotheism (sexual liberation), but we should also invite our opponents to consider a generous pluralism, and community liberty (the freedom for communities to be built around common shared identities/visions of human flourishing), as a common grace, or common good. When I asked some of the most aggressive campaigners for same sex marriage if they would dial down their aggression in response to us offering pluralism rather than what they perceive as an aggressive monotheism they said yes.
  21. I believe our job is to hollow out the value of idols by showing them to be empty and the alternative to be greater; that we should, in a pluralist context, take our lead from Paul in Athens (at the Areopagus) and Ephesus (where the Gospel causes a collapse in the value of the idol market). We should be disruptors of the social order, not just ‘conservers’… and that the Gospel is unsettling. I believe that this is the way to bring people back from the distorted images they bear in the world; that the Gospel is our political strategy because it is how people and societies are transformed.

 

 

Living Faithfully in the ‘sexular age’ (a talk/panel thing)

A couple of months ago the Presbyterian Church of Queensland met for its AGM, we call it ‘Assembly’, and our committee (The Gospel in Society Today) presented a forum on how the leaders of our churches might process the rapid upheaval in our world around the areas of sex, gender, sexuality and marriage.

I ripped off Stephen McAlpine’s ‘A Sexular Age‘ pun on Charles Taylor’s work to provide what I believe is a framework that is both Biblical and ‘real’ to describe the age we live in and what’s going on in conversations around these topics. We filmed the thing. Here it is. I don’t always blow my own trumpet, but if you want a tight summary of the thinking behind all the stuff I’ve written about sexuality and marriage here on this site, it’s probably 30 minutes of me talking that is almost worth watching… the panel discussion is better because there are more voices and people’s actual questions.

We also launched a website for the committee which you should check out (which has a mailing list you should subscribe to).

 

10 Reasons why I won’t be voting in the postal plebiscite (or telling people in my congregation how to vote)

So we have a plebiscite. A non-binding postal plebiscite where MPs will still ultimately get to vote based on conscience. And I don’t know about you, but my newsfeed and email inbox has gone nuts. It feels like D-Day has arrived on the same sex marriage thing in Australia, and that there’s a certain inevitability to the outcome of the postal vote. Cue the hand wringing from Christian leaders (and Tony Abbott) trying to get out the vote for the no case.

The moderator of our own denomination sent out an email to all ministers which included this paragraph:

“It’s important to urge every Presbyterian Christian to engage in the process and vote, and to vote “NO” to change. We ask every attendee at church to both register and vote, and then seek to persuade as many as possible of their family and friends to do likewise.”

I won’t be doing this; I’ll be doing the opposite (hence this blog post). And here’s some reasons why:

  1. I believe the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you) isn’t just a nice idea, but an important command for Christians to pursue as we live together with neighbours who disagree with us.
  2. I believe the Christianity we see in the New Testament assumes a society and moral order that is fundamentally different in outlook to the way of being in the world produced by the Gospel, and it’s not our job to police sexual morality outside the church (1 Corinthians 5).
  3. I believe the best version of a liberal, secular, democracy is pluralistic; that our life together as citizens of Australia works best when we allow for and accommodate a diversity of views on what a good or flourishing human life looks like. If I want my definition of marriage recognised by law, and it comes from my convictions, as a Christian, about what God says a good and flourishing life looks like, then I should be prepared (because of the Golden Rule) to make space for others to have their definition of marriage recognised by law.
  4. I believe that religious freedom is a big part of pluralism, and that all people are worshippers, whether they worship God, or something like sex and marriage; that worship is about our primary love and our vision of the good or flourishing life. That’s part of our humanity. This means everybody defines marriage through the prism of their worship, or love, or vision of the good life (Romans 1 seems to make a connection between what we choose to worship (creator or created things) and how we live in the world. I believe that if I, as a Christian, want the legal freedom to define marriage as God defines it within our church community, and as a Christian in the community, then I should allow my neighbours to have their definition of marriage receive the same legal freedom within the context of a liberal, secular, democracy.
  5. I believe the plebiscite is a bad idea (and poorly executed); that democracy is not about populism and ‘majority rules’ but about balancing competing and different visions of the good life, and making space at the table for all views to be protected and represented in our life together. I think Christians should be particularly concerned about how minority groups in our society are treated both while we have power (because of the Golden Rule), but because I’m not sure we’ll have that power for much longer.
  6. I’d much rather encourage people in my congregation to love their neighbours, regardless of their religion or sexuality, because it’s in our Christ shaped love for those who are different (our following of the Golden Rule), that the message of the Gospel as the ultimate account of human flourishing actually has sense. I don’t want to fight for Christian morals apart from the Gospel, because seeing the world God’s way and living in it as those being transformed into the image of Jesus actually requires his Spirit (Romans 8).
  7. I believe that our current public posture (as the ‘institution’ of the church in Australia, or the political arm of Christendom) is damaging the Gospel by, amongst other things, failing to take points 1-6 into account. I want to be a different voice to those voices (also by failing to speak the Gospel at all, a Crikey essay on the ACL I read this week claims they deliberately avoid religious language in their lobbying).
  8. I have big problems with any ‘Christian’ activity that feels coercive or manipulative, or like an attempt to apply our power or clout to the lives of others outside the church. I don’t think coercion is consistent with the Gospel of the crucified king who ultimately renounced human power and influence; and I believe the Cross is the power and wisdom of God, not the sword (or the democratic equivalent). I think lobbying and special interest groups distort the operation of democracy.
  9. I don’t want to talk to my gay friends and neighbours about why the church doesn’t want them to enjoy what they understand as a basic human right in the context of telling people how to vote in the plebiscite, I want to talk to them about the goodness of Jesus, and the (I believe objectively) better life that is produced if we worship the God who is love, and created us to love, rather than what’s wrong with their ‘worship’… I believe, like the old preacher Thomas Chalmers, that what is required for people’s loves to be changed is ‘the expulsive power’ of new loves, not the creating of a vacuum.
  10. I don’t want to bind people’s consciences to follow my lead, or my vote, because I recognise that within my church community, and denomination, there are many different views on the last 7 points, and coercing or manipulating people to act according to my understanding of the world fails the Golden Rule too.

 

That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but why not vote yes, instead of abstaining? This one’s complicated. I am broadly in favour of same sex marriage for religious freedom reasons, as I’ve said above and elsewhere, but I also do believe that God’s design for marriage between a man and a woman is the best path to human flourishing not just for individuals, but for communities. I totally get that others disagree and think those disagreements should be accommodated, but I also recognise that if I was to advocate voting for same sex marriage I’d be causing many brothers and sisters who hold deep convictions about marriage to stumble, and Paul talks about this in the context of eating food sacrificed to idols (and whether first century Christians should do it or not), because I believe how we view marriage is a product of worship, it’s in the same ball park of what the Bible says about idolatry (worshipping a created thing instead of God), and so I think similar principles apply.

As a leader in church community, and someone with a little bit of a say in how our denomination engages in the public sphere (through some committees I’m on at a state and federal level), I don’t want to be telling people how to vote on much at all or doing anything that appears coercive; so now that I’ve taken a public stance, the abstinence approach to same sex marriage seems the best way to not appear to be binding another to follow my lead.

 

Hungry Hungry Hippos: The danger of modern politics as a zero sum game, and the need for a more hospitable public square

Did you ever play the game Hungry, Hungry Hippos?

It goes a bit like this. Only with more punching and tantrums.

It’s a mildly fun competitive board game for kids; my fear is that this is pretty much what has trained today’s adults in how to participate in the public square. Nobody plays Hungry, Hungry Hippos and sets out to ensure an equal distribution of marbles to all players so that everybody wins. We play to get more than our fair share. That’s how you win; in fact, it’s what defines winners and losers. In the ultimate victory in Hungry Hungry Hippos, you’d get all the marbles and your opponents get none.

If I’ve understood the economic theory correctly, and it’s possible I haven’t because I’m not an economist… Hungry, Hungry Hippos is a ‘zero sum game’. It’s a game where my winning is directly relating to the losing of others; every marble I munch is one my opponents can’t munch. I get 1 marble, and my opponent doesn’t just get zero, they lose the opportunity for a marble, so the ‘sum’ of the interaction is zero. Or, as wikipedia puts it:

“Zero-sum games are a specific example of constant sum games where the sum of each outcome is always zero. Such games are distributive, not integrative; the pie cannot be enlarged by good negotiation.”

Modern politics; or the modern public square, feels like a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos. We play politics these days as a zero sum game; there’s a finite amount of resources available for distribution, or there’s an issue where there’s a clear binary; winners and losers, and the major parties race to pick a side to champion (and therefore one to destroy), and we all line up behind them. We’ve lost the idea of a public square and political realm that operates for the common good of all people and we play the game as though goods are to be distributed in a sort of zero sum way; that’s sensible when it comes to dollars. You can’t just print more money to pay everybody everything they want… but it’s terrible for social policy. We’re perhaps so used to competing for marbles (or resources) when it comes to dollars and projects (whether its playing off health, education, and infrastructure development, against taxation policy) and then distributing those dollars according to priorities with a sort of ‘zero sum’ outcome, that we’ve forgotten that sometimes a commons, or a public sphere, might allow everybody to win, or nobody to win, or even for us to think in terms of things other than winning and losing, and find ways to negotiate towards acceptable outcomes for everybody.

It’s not just our political parties that take the Hungry, Hungry Hippos approach to public life and policy making; its lobbyists, activists and interest groups (pretty much all the same thing)… all these groups out to get their fair share of the marbles, or their interests recognised at law at the expense of all the other players. All looking to win. In fact, I’d say it’s the lobbyists/activists who keep us playing this way, they’re often the ones with particular interests, it’s not that our political parties don’t have ideologies (though often it seems our politicians have the ideology of staying in power by being populist, and that’s why there’s a growing disillusionment with the political process in Australia), but in my observation (and dealings with politicians directly or indirectly), often politicians know that their jobs involve compromise; that’s the reality in their party rooms, and it might just be a matter of different interest groups playing a different game and producing creative alternative proposals, that would see more democratic, less ‘zero sum game’ outcomes for people.

Maybe the alternative to Hungry, Hungry Hippos democracy, which is, in social issues, about making sure your views become the views favoured, protected, or enshrined, in legislation; that you not just ‘your fair share’, but a win, is Hospitable Hippos. Maybe this looks like allowing other participants in the public sphere to get their share too, perhaps even get their share first… perhaps even to get their share at our expense, or given to them by us rather than it being something we fight to take… Could this be what it looks like to move from a ‘distributive’ zero sum game to an ‘integrative’ game where the pie is enlarged, or at least we’ve got a better sense of how to eat the pie together in peace and enjoyment.

I wrote the other day about how Christians in particular should be approaching the public square; our ‘common’ life together with our neighbours as though it’s a dining table where we think in terms of hospitality; and I’ve previously written about how real secular democracy that makes space for different views, rather than just imposing ‘majority rule’ (the Hungry, Hungry Hippos approach) involves a commitment to a generous pluralism. Here’s a couple of principles, from the Bible, that should be governing Christian participation in the public square, or the life of ‘common’ community, that should cause us to rethink those times when we fall into the trap of playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos, pursuing victory at the expense of others (when there might be shared outcomes) in a ‘zero sum game’. The shortcut to thinking about why this might be good and right for all of us, not just Christians, is to imagine the other side winning a total victory and you losing, and using that imagining to come up with something a little more empathetic.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. — Matthew 7:12

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” — Matthew 22:36-39

(The first commandment is probably not quite so applicable to an atheist, or community of atheists, operating in a pluralistic context).

Here’s a bit where Paul fleshes out what these bits

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. — Philippians 2:4-5

To name the elephant in the room, or the hippo, this is evident in the debate around same sex marriage, which has returned to prominence in the last couple of weeks, and people have been furiously bashing buttons to make sure their little underfed hippos get as many marbles as possible; at the expense of the other players. This debate has been framed by both marriage equality advocates and Christian advocates for maintaining the definition of marriage as a zero sum game.

It scares me, as a Christian, to think what might happen if marriage equality advocates win the zero sum game, and then decide to respond by treating us Christians as they feel like they’ve been treated. There’s a palpable push from some advocates for change to not protect religious freedoms beyond a secular/sacred divide (so people conducting marriages as religious celebrants will be protected) that, as someone who rejects the idea that there’s a secular/sacred divide, or that religion is a private matter within the home or the institution of the church, is threatening… The maw of those hippos, and their deadly, terrible, teeth frighten me a little…

But we Christians are no better. We’ve set this debate up as an all or nothing thing; as though the definition of marriage provided for us from our religious convictions about God, the world, and humanity, should apply to everybody because we say he says it is good for them. No matter how you frame it this is neither hospitable, pluralistic, or generous to those who have a fundamentally different vision of human flourishing. It pushes other views, and the people who hold them, away from the table (which isn’t actually our table), and insists they eat on our terms, or not at all. It is an attempt to define what a ‘fair share’ is that leaves us holding on to more marbles than our neighbours.

By taking this zero sum game approach we’ve essentially invited our neighbours to do the same thing… in fact, we’ve given them no real alternative option, we’ve decided this how the game is going to be played, or we’ve joined in without questioning whether this is how we should be playing it. By approaching the table, the ‘board’, or the public square as a competitive environment rather than a place where we work out how to live together across difference, despite difference, in a spirit of generosity, we’ve invited other people to crush us. To me this seems to fail those two key principles Jesus says sums up the Old Testament law (which is ironic, given where we draw our arguments from), and it’s a failure to truly love the other.

There are other options that might see us keeping our marbles, rather than losing them… there’s an approach to this marriage debate that we could take that would maintain our ability to be different and distinct, but also to share a table (metaphorically and literally) with those who are also different and distinct to us, without seeking to destroy them. It’s possible we could approach this debate with less punching. We just have to change the game.

What does this look like? A hospitable, or generous, pluralism?

It looks like stepping back from fighting to define marriage for everyone, and instead asking that Christians — either in public or private — be free to understand marriage according to our convictions (and that our neighbours with other religious, political, cultural, or moral, convictions be free to do the same). It seems that lots of us think this is the thing we’ll salvage after we lose the big war, by fighting robustly on the definition front to show how much we care — but that’s not how Hungry, Hungry Hippos, or a zero sum game works.

It looks like giving up fighting for our rights to win and define things for everybody.

It looks like recognising that the government are the guardians of the commons; that we live in a democracy (not a populist country ruled by a tyranny of the majority), so that the results of a plebiscite are largely irrelevant if there are even some people in our community who feel excluded from the table by our approach. Democracy, at its best, protects minorities from the majority because it views all people as equal.

I understand that many, many, advocates for the definition of marriage are arguing on the basis of a view of human flourishing connected to the family, to the uniqueness and importance of gender difference, and ‘for the sake of the children’; these are views I share, but they are views that are contested, there are other views of human flourishing held by our neighbours and we get into dangerous territory when we, as Christians, start suggesting that our God’s views, or the views of the majority, should dictate the practices of all (again, ironically, the same people arguing most stridently against marriage definition also argue most stridently against anything that looks like sharia law).

We don’t have to lose our marbles to participate in public life and politics as Christians, but maybe we might consider giving some up? Being less hungry, and more inclined to share the table with others…

 

The Persecution Complex: Why Jesus, not Andrew Bolt, is the ‘leader’ the church needs

The Church has found an unlikely ally in recent weeks; not even an ally, a champion. A strong voice prepared to lead the fight for us in the culture wars in Australia. Commentator Andrew Bolt. Sure. He’s got his own wars to fight both in terms of his politics, and his economic interests (where he’s got his sights set on the ABC), and we’re almost a convenient party to co-opt into these fights, but he’s noticing something many Christians have been noticing for some time… we’re facing a battle; a David v Goliath type scenario. There are people out there wanting to silence Christians; to stomp us out of public life. In a column today titled ‘Enemies of Christianity declaring new war on religion,‘ Bolt describes the battle lines, calls God’s people to find a champion, and outlines the problems as he sees them. Here’s a few choice quotes.

Here’s the opening salvo.

“CHRISTIANS, prepare for persecution. Open your eyes and choose stronger leaders for the dark days.

I am not a Christian, but I am amazed that your bishops and ministers are not warning you of what is already breaking over your heads.”

I’ve got to ask what bishops and ministers he’s listening to; cause we’ve been banging on about ‘dark days’ since that dark afternoon when our leader was nailed to some planks of wood by the empire… it’s just we see the solution caught up with his return, and with our faithful perseverance in the face of similar worldly interests. Goliath has always been beating at our doors.

Bolt’d know this. If he wasn’t blinded to our situation by those very key words in his admission ‘I am not a Christian’… once he says that I suspect his thoughts on leadership are deeply problematic for us, and that he’s more interested in conscripting us to fight his own battles… but then, he says such nice things about us; here’s some more:

In fact, Christianity produce better citizens in many ways.

Surveys show Christians are more inclined to volunteer, donate and keep families together.

So what do the enemies of Christianity wish to achieve by smearing, silencing and destroying this civilising faith? What would they replace it with?

With the atheism that preaches every man for himself? With Islam?

Or with the green faith that has not inspired a single hospital, hospice, school, or even soup kitchen?

Yet the persecution is starting. Are the churches ready?

How could we refuse the insights of such a generous and prescient ally?

Bolt is pretty keen to put himself at the head of the charge; on the frontline, to position himself as an exemplary David, facing the Goliath that is ‘aggressive secularism’ in Australia. Only this David doesn’t believe God has anything to do with the fight… He crafts quite the narrative, linking together a string of stories that do demonstrate a real sense that those advocating Christianity in the public sphere — particularly those fighting the culture wars with him — face an uphill battle. Then he digs the boot in to the ‘weakness’ of the church. We’re kinda to blame for the predicament we find ourselves in if we don’t step up to fight the way he wants us to (this is an odd sort of victim blaming considering Bolt fundamentally misunderstands the essence of a religion that involves a crucified king).

No wonder, when the weaker churches cower before the persecution.

Last week, some even licked the boots of the anti-Christian ABC when it launched yet another attack, smearing churches as the haven of wife-beaters.

This wannabee David wants to take on this secular Goliath for us, but has no sense that God works not through a ‘theology of glory’ but through weakness; through crucifixion. This ‘David’ is no ‘David’ at all. He’s a Saul, looking for other Sauls, not for sons of David. And certainly not the Son of David who was crucified; who tells us what leadership looks like when we’re facing our own Goliaths. The problem is, when it came to defeating Goliath, Saul was lacking. And for us Christians, there’s a force standing behind Goliath, the triumvirate of sin, death, and Satan, and we know those enemies were also defeated by weakness; by the ‘son of David’ being nailed to a cross.

You know, the thing about crucifixion is it looks and feels a lot like persecution. And we Christians should be careful not to take our marching orders from a bloke who doesn’t understand the fundamentals of our religious beliefs, but likes the fruit our enacted beliefs produce. Cause there’s a good chance he’ll miss the point. We Christians should be careful who we appoint as our champion to face Goliath; if there’s a sense he might look more like Saul, than like David. Remember that story? Let’s jump back into the Old Testament narrative; one that informs the story of Jesus, and so informs us as Christians as we think about staring down ‘enemies’… take this narrative (including Jesus) out of the picture and you get a very wonky and worldly picture of leadership (and Bolt has no place for this narrative).

Israel had settled in the promised land. They decided — against what God had commanded — that they wanted a ‘king like the other nations’ — a strong and mighty leader. They — against what God had commanded — looked for a big and strong leader who’d fight well for them. God gave them what they asked for; not because it was going to be good for them, but to show them what happens when we take our lead from people who don’t believe in the power of God to save. God had been delivering them from their enemies over and over again; but their inability to follow his lead, and to trust in him, saw them spiral into a bunch of bad decisions (read the book of Judges). Picking Saul was the culmination of these bad decisions. Samuel the prophet gets a bit upset at Israel because they keep asking for a ‘king like the nations’; and here’s what God says:

And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
— 1 Samuel 8:7-9

They end up with Saul, son of Kish. Who is described in the sort of terms we might look for in a leader.

Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else. — 1 Samuel 9:2

Things look pretty good for a while. Saul sure is mighty. But he starts to believe his own press; he reckons its his strength that Israel needs; he stops listening to God (he’s a bit of a metaphor for Israel), and God turns his back on Saul and instead picks a king after his own heart. When Samuel speaks to rebuke Saul, he says:

“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.” — 1 Samuel 13:13-14

He goes out and following God’s commands, picks a leader quite different to the sort the nations might choose; and the sort Israel might jump in to follow. He picks the runt of the litter. When Samuel goes to find this new king, the one God chooses to replace ‘the king like the nations’, he goes to Jesse’s farm and there’s this line up of tall strong sons to choose from… and God chooses the puny David. He has this exchange with Samuel, as Samuel looks at Jesse’s big, strong, warrior son, Eliab.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” — 1 Samuel 16:7

David turns out to be pretty mighty — as a weapon in God’s hands — he takes a sling and takes down the giant that Saul, Eliab, and all the warriors of Israel, were unable to defeat.

See, the thing about Bolt in his cultural crusade, in his desire for strong leaders; cultural crusaders from within the church; the thing is, Bolt is not well placed to pick the sort of leaders we might need. Bolt is looking at the world from outside God’s story. Bolt is going to pick an Eliab, or a Saul, not a David.

The sort of champion God requires is not a strong, worldly, leader. It’s not the Andrew Bolts of this world we should be pinning our hopes on; or the people Bolt would have us stand behind… those who respond to secular Goliaths with equally strong and robust arguments. We don’t need a baptised Goliath to take down Goliath.

We need leaders who take their lead from the ultimate king after God’s own heart… our ultimate leader. The one from the line of David.

Bolt pays lip service to some of the teachings of Jesus in his call to arms; he says, of the threat of Christianity to the Secular Goliath: “Is it that stuff about loving your neighbour? Or that instruction to respect the dignity of every human life that makes Christians the enemy of totalitarians?” It’s that stuff that makes Christianity dangerous and subversive, certainly, but there’s a bit that makes Christianity a danger to people like Bolt; a double edged sword that cuts both sides of the culture war. It’s the bit about loving our enemies. It’s the bit about taking up our cross; about praying for those who persecute you; about living at peace and seeking the good of those who seek our destruction because we know that ultimately this is how God works. It’s the bit where we follow leaders who follow the example and teaching of Jesus, the son of David, the king truly ‘after God’s own heart’

Jesus predicts persecution for his followers; in fact, it comes with the territory. Here’s a couple of things our great leader says that should shape how we face up to those who look like Goliaths, but who have actually, in the scheme of things, been defeated already by the victory of Jesus on the cross, and the security promised by his resurrection. It’s in these moments of persecution that the Gospel is truly on display; as we faithfully proclaim it. And this is what Christian leadership looks like; trusting, following, and proclaiming Jesus when our feet are in the fire.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” — Matthew 10:16-20

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. — Matthew 16:24-27

If, like Bolt, you don’t believe this stuff Jesus promises about what he achieves in his death and resurrection, you’re going to fundamentally miss the point of Christian leadership, and you’ll end up offering terrible and destructive advice to the church in order to co-opt us into some battle that is not our own; a battle for life in this world where we forfeit our soul.

If, though, you believe the words of Jesus, and follow his lead, then persecution is opportunity; it is where God speaks and the nature of his life-giving kingdom is on display. It’s where the character built by loving our enemies is forged and displayed. It’s where the fruits of the Gospel that bolt so admires comes from.

That’s the leadership the church needs; it’s the leadership the world needs too. Not Bolt’s leadership. Not the culture wars. We need Davids. Not Sauls. Leaders who trust that God is king; not those who want kings like the nations.

When ‘secularism’ defaults to ‘atheism’ and why that might be a problem for Christian kids (or the government)

UPDATE: The Queensland Government has released a fairly emphatic statement on the story in the Australian.

“Ms Jones said the Palaszczuk Government supported religious instruction in state schools in consultation with parents.

“No one is telling a child what they can and can’t say in the playground,” she said.

“There has been no change to the religious instruction policy in state schooling.

“We are an inclusive education system that aims to provide a good education for all students of all faiths.

“The policy in place in Queensland state schools today is exactly the same as the policy in place under the former Newman Government and has been the same for more than 20 years.”

There’s a story in the Australian today that I’ve been following for a little while that I’m still struggling to get my head around.

A little while ago the Queensland Government conducted a review on RI lessons in state schools. I wrote a letter to the Education Minister Kate Jones. I’m an RI teacher and a parent of a child who attends a state school who loves talking about Jesus. Jesus is part of her life. She loves kids church. We talk about him at home, our assumption as parents is that there is not a millimetre of life in this world where Jesus is not king and God is not present. There is not a subject she’ll be taught at school — be it math, science, or reading and writing — that is not in some way revealing something of the nature of God, and the nature of humanity.

As good Presbyterians, we believe that our faith answers questions not just about the meaning of life but about the purpose of life; and that love and safety for others is ultimately tied to these questions of meaning and purpose. Christians, for a long time, have engaged in a practice called ‘catechising’ their children; that means teaching, or instructing them of the foundations of our belief. It’s an ‘education’ word.

Here’s what the catechism most Presbyterian churches use says about the meaning and purpose of life:

What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever

It’s very hard, if this is true, for a Christian to believe you can remove this fundamental purpose of existence from other spheres of life. I think the paragraph this media coverage hangs off in a review of religious instruction material misunderstands the fundamental nature of religious belief. I think it requires something impossible of my children. Here’s what the Queensland government’s review of the material I teach in RI says:

“While not explicitly prohibited by the EGPA or EGPR, nor referenced in the RI policy statement, the Department would expect schools to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in RI were evangelising to students who do not participate in their RI class, given this could adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.”

Exactly what ‘appropriate action’ is for an activity that is ‘not explicitly prohibited’ is up in the air; and apparently the Ministers office has been largely unresponsive to people seeking clarification.

One thing that this debate hangs on is the meaning of words. I’ve been catechising our kids using this book called Story Catechism; which teaches our kids how to see the world through the story of the Bible; which is ultimately the story of Jesus. The ‘good news,’ which is what ‘gospel’ means, and the word for ‘gospel’ in Greek is where we get the ‘evangel’ bit of ‘evangelism’. I am shaping my kids to be ‘Gospel kids,’ which means I’m shaping them to live the gospel, which means the most natural thing in the world for them will be to speak the Gospel.

As good Aussies, we’re keen to raise our kids in a secular democracy as generous pluralists; I want my kids to know that other people should be free to choose their own religious beliefs, even if that means rejecting Jesus, and should be free to understand meaning and purpose differently; and I want my kids exposed to those other ideas so they can make their own decisions about belief. This potential overreach from the State Government seems to be a threat to that; I say potential because until its clear what’s actually at stake here, or what principals will be required to do if a Christian kid is ‘evangelising,’ I suspect this is one of those ideas that sounds nice in theory but one that will create a crazy amount of admin work for our already overworked teachers and school administrators to implement and police. It does seem to place a dangerous tool in the hands of any principal who is, themselves, aggressively ‘secular’ or who faces a noisy ‘secular’ parent or group of parents. I say ‘secular’ because the meaning of the word secularism is contested; as noted by philosopher Charles Taylor in his massive A Secular Age.

Secularism does not mean atheism; it does not mean ‘freedom from religion’ but ‘freedom to hold any religious belief’. It doesn’t mean religious beliefs should be excluded; but rather that all religious (and non-religious) beliefs should be included. There’s a danger that the pursuit of ‘safety’ as the ultimate human good will actually not teach our kids to be good participants in a secular democracy; that it will instruct them not to be generous pluralists in a secular world; but rather, sectarian. That our children will withdraw into the safe space, the cultural ghetto, of the religious instruction class room, where they’ll be told what is fundamental to their humanity is their religious belief; and then the ‘commons’ — the playground — will be a place where they are unable to be truly human. I can imagine lots of religious parents seeing this as the moment where they withdraw their kids even further, into Christian schools, or home schooling, which again is unlikely to produce the sort of generous pluralistic approach to common life that our society requires in order to flourish.

Here’s what I think the next three steps are for Christian parents reading the coverage in the Australian today.

  1. Teach your kids the Gospel; that Jesus is king over every part of their life, and that God created the world so that everything they learn at school, that is true about the world, helps them understand his divine nature and character. Teach them that the Gospel is good news that gives them hope and purpose, and that like mathematics, their job is to reveal God’s divine nature and character; that we are ‘God’s workmanship created in him to do the good works he has prepared in advance for us to do.’
  2. Teach them to respect the different views of others; and that they don’t have to agree with their school friends (or teachers) but they do have to listen respectfully and consider what they say, in order to understand one another, in the same way we hope we will be understood.
  3. Tell your kids that because Jesus is king; it’s him we listen to, and that that might mean being misunderstood and even punished by their school. And that will be part of life in a world where ‘secular’ is contested.
  4. Write to the education minister seeking clarification; without assuming an anti-Christian agenda; explain how such an ambiguous statement seems inconsistent with Christian belief and practice. I’ll be writing my own letter and will post it somewhere.
  5. Participate in public discussion about this story (whether its on radio talkback, the comments sections in websites, or on social media). Be gracious, assume that this is just a misunderstanding or well motivated overreach from the government; not part of a sinister agenda to persecute Christians.

A tale of two tables: Public Christianity, common conversations, and our place at the table

One of the most telling things about many of the conversations I’ve participated in and watched around the ABC expose on domestic violence in churches in the last week is around the place we Christians seem to want to occupy at the common ‘table’ and the way we then operate our own ‘table’…

A tale of two tables

Bear with me. I’m going to use the table as a metaphor for where these conversations happen. Let’s assume for a moment that the public square is like a dining table; lots of people with ideas clamour for seats. For a long time, in Christendom, the institutional church had one of the prime positions (if not the prime position for a while) at this table. We set the agenda; we were the hosts; it was assumed we would look out for the common good. Over time our place at the head was contested, and we moved away from the head but remained in a position of influence. We were still heard. Now. Well. The table is both ‘secular’ in that our voice doesn’t get a particularly special place, ‘pluralistic’ in that many voices — institutional, and even religious — are welcomed, but there’s increasingly an expectation that religious beliefs are a bit out of touch and probably don’t have much of a place, and we’re tolerated so long as we’re prepared to put our money where our mouth is and act to bring change according to an agenda set by the host.

There’s a second table in this metaphor. It’s the table that we run. The one where we invite other people to be part of discussions; where we are the host, and where we should be particularly interested to invite people that the rest of society ignores. Historically this has been where the church has been an excellent force for social change; because the conversations at this second table have informed our participation at the first. But mostly because this table is where we see the power of the Gospel to generally bring people together as family; where the worldly games of status and power get put aside (incidentally, this is why Paul is so keen to rebuke the way status games are creeping in to the share meal in Corinth)… Our literal table is meant to be different as an expression of this metaphor. If the first table is the public square, and the banquet is the communication that happens there; the second is our Christian community and the conversations that happen there. How we approach the first table as leaders or the ‘institution’ shapes the tone of the second, and who feels welcome (because in fact, how we approach the first table should reflect who is speaking at the second).

The dilemma is that not only have we lost our place of honour at the first table — now it’s a place where we’re increasingly losing our dignity. We’re now viewed with the sort of suspicion reserved for the slightly delusional great-uncle at a family gathering. There’s now increasingly a belief that we’re not just delusional but harmful and unwelcome. So we protest like that same great-uncle would about being shunted down the line, replaced by new in-laws, out-laws, and Johny-come-latelys. We’ve lost a bit of status and dignity. We’re really worried about losing our seat; and so we act out a bit, yell loudly about our historic contribution, and forget that a big part of our value was what we brought to table one from table two; that those contributions were noticed and gave us legitimacy. And yet, we do still get seats at the table; our lobbyists are heard, and invited onto TV panel programs, so too are pretty exceptional representatives of the clergy and the church; who are invited to contribute to discussions.

I’m not the first to use these two tables as a metaphor; Jesus was. But more recently there was a great article in Cardus’ Comment Magazine that planted this idea for me. Here’s a bit from Luke 14, where Jesus has been invited into the house of a Pharisee; to dine at the table of a ruler of the pharisees. This is the public sphere; and Luke tells us ‘they are watching him carefully’… it’s the sabbath. And Jesus heals a man with dropsy; an outcast. A man whose illness and physical disfigurement would’ve excluded him from the sort of power and influence his host enjoyed. And at this table, there’s a competition for top spot…

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” — Luke 14:7-14

It feels to me like we Christians are getting bumped down the pecking order in that table of influence; further and further away from the place of honour. And we keep grabbing a seat that’s about where we think we should be and being dropped a peg or two; and the way back up isn’t to noisily defend our honour; but to act with honour and dignity; to present ourselves as more lowly than we actually are… and there seems to be a connection between this picture and the one that immediately follows of hosting a banquet. This is a picture of the sort of literal and metaphorical hospitality we should be offering in this world; of our priorities in terms of the sorts of people whose voices we should be concerned about at our table. 

When it comes to the Domestic Violence conversation, here’s where I think our approach to the dilemma we’re more broadly experiencing around our place at table one kicks in. We’re so keen not to be the crazy uncle, we’re so keen to keep our place at the table, that we lash out at anybody who has the temerity to suggest that there is anything at all wrong with us that should keep us from the conversation. Like the crazy uncle who keeps turning up in his underwear and thinks there’s a great conspiracy to get rid of him when all the rest of the family want is for him to wear pants and behave with common decency; and to stop trying to sit at the head and dictate the conversation for everybody else.

This is what it looks like to me when we keep going after the ABC for ‘bias’ or as though there’s an anti-Christian agenda behind this story or its use of stats (which I do believe were a very minor part of the investigation and the story, they were just the controversy used to sell the story). And News Ltd isn’t helping (nor is our ongoing desire for the institution to be vindicated by the court of public opinion). They’ve found a wedge in their ongoing stoush with the ABC and they’re using the figure of the great uncle to score points against another voice at the table. Every time we try to land a blow on the ABC we’re failing to ‘turn the other cheek’ or to respond to curse with blessing. Every time we clamour for a spot at table one by asserting our dignity and our rightful place there, we’re making table two seem less hospitable to the victims in our communities.

We may well have been misrepresented — certainly the headline and hook sentence of that first article (probably written by a sub-editor, not the reporters) was unhelpful, and Media Watch has rightfully critiqued the ABC’s coverage for that… but what we’re not considering in our attempts to maintain an honourable position at table one, is what the cost is to our ability to run our second table; to being hospitable and welcoming to those we should be hospitable and welcoming to.

Table two should be our primary concern. Table two is the table where we should be making space for the victims; the vulnerable, and the oppressed. And so many of those women, on social media, are reporting that our concern to maintain face and dignity at table one — institutionally — to protect the brand — is coming at a cost of them feeling welcome at table two. Our leaders have been so quick to share criticisms of the ABC article, its methodology, its headline, its use of ‘research’ (and I use those quote marks deliberately because on the one hand we’re dismissive of the year long investigation of actual stories in Australia, and on the other hand I think research from America a decade ago is of questionable value in assessing the Australian scene anyway); and this, in my observations, has been from a desire to maintain the dignity of the church and keep us getting a place at the table. I think it’s a wrong strategy. I think it’s harmful for our table one status; and disastrous for our hosting of table two. And we need to assess our priorities. And the way to do that is to listen to the people who are at our table with us — or should be — the victims; be that in the stories Julia Baird unearthed, or the many victims who’ve come forward on social media. One of my Facebook friends, Isabella Young, is a victim and an advocate for victims in the church; she said the other day:

“This appears to be turning into the rest of the church versus the abuse victims unfortunately. I really don’t care what those stats say, what I do care about is that no one is discussing the individual points raised in the article or documentary. But we all like a fight don’t we?”

 

Our job is to be the hosts of this other table that is utterly different to the table of the Pharisees — the tables that operate in the world of power and status. Jesus returns to the idea of places of honour at banquets a bit later in Luke’s Gospel.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” — Luke 20:46-47

This is a picture of the status hungry gone rogue — people who in pursuit of their own honour also devour widows houses. People who should be hosts but are wolves and abusers of the vulnerable. That’s what we’re not to be; people who are so concerned with our own dignity and place at the public table — these ‘feasts’ — that we are destroying our ability to be hospitable to the vulnerable.

I reckon that’s a key to this role we’re meant to play as generous hosts to the vulnerable, who are then able to represent the vulnerable well as advocates in other spheres. I suspect the closer we are to the head of table one — the more proximate we are to worldly power — the harder this passionate advocacy is to achieve; much like it would have been harder for Jesus to challenge the Pharisees if he was one. Our relationship to worldly power should be the same, I suspect, as his relationship to the Pharisees; an expectation of crucifixion for calling out when that power is being abused. It’s hard to do that if we’re at the head of that table, or our relationship is too cosy, or if we want to be treated with dignity and respect; rather than seeing our mission as speaking on behalf of those at table two. Our table.

Here’s the thing. Realising that we’re not at the head of the table, or in a place of honour, any longer at table one is vital for our ability to do public Christianity; or participate in the public square; with dignity. Self-protection is a lot like aiming for a place of honour that we don’t deserve; having others protect our dignity is not an opportunity for us to say “I told you so” — if it happens it is nice, and we should be thankful, but turning the other cheek means we don’t use another person’s testimony in our favour to hit back.

Realising we’re not the host of the public conversation also guides the way we contribute to the conversation; its not our conversation to run, it’s not our job to define terms, or to be defensive; our best ‘defence’ is who we host at table two, and how we speak for and look out for their interests. That’s where we gain credibility; that and in our humility which is expressed in treating our host and conversation partners with respect even when they wrong us; even when they’re trying to trap us; even if ultimately they’ll crucify us. That’s what Jesus was doing in Luke 14, even as he implicitly rebuked the Pharisees by healing the crippled man on the sabbath; as he explicitly rebuked them by suggesting his host and guests had their approach to hospitality and honour wrong, and building a table for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” is what Jesus came to achieve; the table he builds is the table of his kingdom; these people are tangible pictures of those who know they need God and salvation in Luke’s Gospel — Jesus has previously proclaimed ‘it’s not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick’ (Luke 5:31), and these are the people Jesus explicitly said he came to liberate in Luke 4. This is the sort of table we’re to be building in our own communities; and our efforts in the last few days, in many cases, have been deconstructive rather than constructive.